Once upon a time, there was a smattering of nonconformist athletes whose desire to ride the waves, snow or pavement exiled them from the traditional sports industry. Today, those antiestablishment surfers, snowboarders, skateboarders and even motocross riders are the darlings of the commercial world.The X Games are televised on basic cable, HBO’s newest Sunday night series takes place at Imperial Beach, and preppie clothier Abercrombie & Fitch has found raging success cloning surf style at its 400-store Hollister chain. It’s no surprise that teens from coast to coast are snatching up apparel that enables them to feel, even if just for a day, like their action-sports heroes.
Many action-sports brands have ridden the surging wave, growing their own businesses as the industries around them exploded. But as the action-sports category grows, the competition becomes fiercer and the need to expand to a broader stage becomes paramount. And where better to increase your business than to ride into another action sport?
“Brands are seeing that in order to grow you need to expand your distribution,” explains Andy Tompkins, show director for the ASR trade shows in San Diego. Not only are new labels moving into the action-sports arena constantly, he says, but “there’s increased competition on the retail level as leading chains emerge and retailers consolidate. There are limited retail stores, and they’re going deeper in fewer lines.”
With fewer labels taking up more real estate, retailers want more than just a technical jacket and a printed hoodie from the new brand on the block. “Lifestyle sportswear helps with branding,” Tompkins continues. “Companies that are successful selling that lifestyle are the ones that get the floor space.”
But while brand expansion across multiple action sports would seem like a no-brainer, each market has its own nuances, not only in practice, but also in style. A 15-year-old guy hanging out post-surf at Huntington Beach is likely sporting a vastly different outfit from a teen that spent the day snowboarding at Killington. The question is: How different is that style? Is it actually his apparel or just the logo on his T-shirt?
With its relative newness compared to other action sports—the snowboard didn’t even hit slopes in its modern form until the late 1970s—the snowboarding industry is ripe for newcomers, with just a handful of significant brands as established competition.
And there certainly is money to be made at winter-sport shops. According to the SIA, the national association representing snow sports, for the past winter season, from August 2006 to March 2007, core snow-sport stores rang up $1.8 billion in sales. And while the inconsistent weather made hard goods a tough buy, shoppers still showed up to purchase apparel—$623 million of it, up 8 percent from last year.
The obvious 800-pound gorilla in most snow shops is Burton Snowboards, founded by snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton in Stowe, Vt. 30 years ago. But, in recent years snowboarders are beginning to hit the mountains in a range of new brands, with logos not typically seen on the slopes, but instead, in the surf.
In fact, the surf mainstay Quiksilver was recently front and center on the mountain, as its sponsored team athlete, Travis Rice, took top honors at the 2007 Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in March.
Dave Rosenberger, who heads up the winter-sports division for the Huntington Beach–based company, hopes that Quiksilver’s representation on Rice’s gear will boost the credibility of a brand that has long been involved in snow sports, although not often associated with the mountain clearly inked on its logo.
“The hardest guy to get is the core snowboarder and the core snowboard retailer in the Northeast. We understand that it’s hard to go to a brand like Quiksilver when there are brands that wake up every day, and all they do is make technical outerwear,” explains Rosenberger. “But we think we’re starting to break through and be thrown into the same conversations as Burton or Bonfire.”
Beyond just the technical aspects of the product—“that was the first thing we had to establish”—Rosenberger believes Quiksilver hit its stride by exporting its knowledge about apparel fit and fashion. “We figured out what the Quiksilver snowboarder looks like,” he continued, which, it turns out, is quite similar to the Quiksilver surfer. “We think there are a lot of snowboarders that aspire to the surf lifestyle, and that’s something we have deep roots in.”
Still, what Rosenberger perceives as a “fresh aesthetic” in a snowboard shop doesn’t always ring true for the shopper, especially in the Northeast—a.k.a. Burton’s backyard.
“Certain companies don’t translate well on the East Coast,” says Herb Grignon, who manages sales for Eastern Boarder, a Massachusetts snow-and-skate retail chain. “I don’t get a lot of guys coming in here looking to buy a T-shirt from a California surfing company.”
R.J. Amalfa, ski and snow buyer for the New Jersey surf-and-snow chain Brave New World, agrees that “Burton owns the winter market right now.” Even though a significant amount of Brave New World’s business is done during the summer, when labels like Quiksilver, O’Neill and Rip Curl rule the roost, he says, when it comes to winter sports, those companies don’t ring the registers. “There’re companies out there gunning for Burton’s top spot, but there’s more of a chance that Burton will mess up, than it is a case of someone taking it away from them.”
The exception, says Amalfa, is Volcom, the Costa Mesa, Calif.–based action-sports brand founded on a trio of boardsports: skate, snow and surf. Despite the reality that only 8 percent of the brand’s business is in snow, Amalfa insists that their apparel (and outerwear) sells year-round at his shops. “You could put a brown bag out with a Volcom stone on it, and someone would buy it. They really nailed the whole antiestablishment thing with the youth.”
Volcom executives have made no bones about trying to gain market share in the winter industry. Although the company has forecast its snowboarding business to stay consistent at less than 10 percent, Troy Eckert, Volcom’s vice-president of marketing, says, “There’s no doubt that snowboarding has potential to grow. Surfing is just a coastal thing. There’s a lot of middle ground across the U.S. and worldwide.”
For the action-sports brand crossing into the summer market, the waters are significantly more crowded. But in a surf business that rang up $5.51 billion in core surf shops alone in 2006, according to a retail study conducted by the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, there should be plenty of room for everyone in the water.
Still, a big fish in a small pond isn’t always a big fish in the ocean. “The market for the snow side is small and tight, but the summer market is a very crowded place,” says Ira Rosh, divisional merchandise manager for New York City’s Paragon Sports. “That’s a real challenge for the snow guys moving into other markets. How do you do stuff that’s different enough to distinguish you from the rest of the summer brands?”
Seemingly undaunted, Burton last year compartmentalized its apparel division as “Burton Life,” and pushed a spring/summer line out at retail. The collection has been met with mixed reaction.
“We’re seeing a little resistance to Burton apparel,” says Brave New World’s Amalfa. “My customer that is a surfer and snowboarder has no problem with it, but my everyday summer guy doesn’t seem to know the Burton label.”
Although Burton could not be reached for this article, many retailers attest to having better results with the company’s Analog label, originally launched in 1999 as a high-priced core outerwear line, but now more often identified as a surf-and-skate streetwear brand.
“Oftentimes a brand name can limit you when you go into another market,” says ASR’s Tompkins. “Burton may be so synonymous with the snow market that they need to go under another name in the summer market to be taken seriously.”
On the West Coast, where the Burton name is perhaps less ingrained as a snowboard brand, Jack’s Surfboards’ owner Ron Abdel says both Burton and Analog’s summer lines are doing “amazing.” With its acquisition of Channel Islands, a core surfboard manufacturer, last June, Abdel believes Burton earned even greater surf credibility and could have the potential to create another apparel label with its newest brand.
“It’s easier for a snow company to come into surf than for a surf company to go into snow,” he says.
Other action-sports categories are not always an easy sell in surf, though. New York City–based skate label Zoo York has been trying to make inroads into the surf market, a brand extension that seems like a logical direction, says Zoo York brand manager Mark Nardelli. “I think skateboarding tricks heavily influence modern-day surfing. Surfers respect skateboarding.”
It is to Zoo York’s advantage to get in on the action—while the skate market tends to be limited to young men in their teens or twenties, Nardelli adds, “Surfing includes a wider audience. We’d have a larger market for Zoo York to appeal to.”
Still, he says, core surf retailers are difficult to break into as most require not only surf product such as boardshorts, but also a dedication to the sport’s lifestyle. “A lot of retailers will allocate you more floor space if you market in that niche,” says Nardelli, such as by advertising in surfing magazines and boasting a competitive roster of athletes.
What makes Zoo York so salable, argues Nardelli, is its gritty New York City aesthetic. Just like West Coast surfing brands that provide fashion contrasts in East Coast winter markets, Zoo York’s dark line offers a fresh look in a sea of cheery West Coast surf brands.
Similarly, Fox Racing, a brand founded on motocross, has made significant headway into the surf market by touting its non-surf roots. “We’ve been told by buyers that Fox offers something unique because of its outside influence of moto. We don’t look like a surf brand,” says Fox’s marketing director, Jim Anfuso. “The same prints that are on our moto line are on our boardshorts. That’s what our brand represents.”
But an unusual aesthetic doesn’t necessarily translate into success with core surf shops. Says Jack’s Abdel, “Our image is snow, skate and surf, and we’re not leaning towards racing.” Although he does carry the Fox line in one of his five shops, he says, when it comes to surf gear, “Motocross is not an image that our customer is asking for.”
Ultimately, Abdel concedes, like other retailers, he is a slave to his shoppers. “If customers ask for something, I’ll buy it.”
And as retailers get more creative with their product mixes, ASR’s Tompkins believes that cross-sport growth is possible and probable. “There’s a lot of opportunity for a brand to be successful across multiple markets,” he says. “But the retailers are only going to be there if they see a real commitment to that customer. There has to be good product, good marketing and good stories behind the brand.”