Byline: Melanie Kletter

Sandwiched into a busy shopping strip on lower Broadway in Manhattan, the Blades Board and Skate shop is a hub of activity.
On a recent midday in March, during one of the first nice spring days of the season, customers of all ages crowded into the store. A young man in a suit was on the hunt for hockey sticks, while an older gentleman tried on snowboard jackets.
A pack of teenage girls entered the store and made a beeline to the apparel section. And a group of fit-looking men were chatting at the counter about recent snowboarding trips they had taken.
While it is often unusual to spot this eclectic a customer mix is unusual in an urban specialty store, Blades has developed a niche by catering to young trendsetters, but not alienating older customers or those who do not fit the “core” profile of the kid who lives to skate and ride.
“This cross section of shoppers represents just a typical day at the chain,” said Scott Kelliher, Blades’ director of marketing. “We draw a wide range of customers with our lifestyle appeal.”
The sporting goods and lifestyle chain, which now operates 16 stores and is celebrating its 10th anniversary,is poised for a major growth spurt. Its jumbled mix of board sports and skating equipment, footwear, hip apparel and accessories appeals beyond its roots in the trendsetting action sports market.
Blades has recently launched a number of strategies to boost its profile, including expanding its offerings for women, launching an e-commerce Web site and delving deeper into new categories such as swimwear. The chain now sponsors numerous sporting events and sporting trips. And an initial public offering may be in the works.
“Our goal is to be an action lifestyle store, including everything from footwear and clothes to music,” said Jeff Kabat, the chain’s founder and chief executive officer. “There is much more to it than just gear.”
Founded as a place to buy and rent snowboards and in-line skates, Blades has evolved significantly since 1990, when action sports such as snowboarding were just beginning to have broad appeal.
Kabat, a former consultant at Arthur Anderson who is now in his late 30s, got tired of the intense amount of traveling required by his position and decided to test the retail waters.
“I realized there was starting to be a lot of interest in inline skating and we were one of the first stores in the city to carry the product.”
That first store, located on 72nd Street near Central Park on the Upper West Side, offered in-line skates for rent, but soon added other product categories, such as apparel and board sports.
“We had deep roots in the authentic, technical skate and board arena,” Kabat noted. “We had the wind at our back in terms of demographics, because fashion among the 18-to-35-year-old set has kind of followed the action sports offering.”
The concept caught on quickly, and the chain has spent the last decade opening up new units and expanding its offerings. Most stores are located in urban areas. It currently operates five units in the New York area, and other store locations include Boston, King of Prussia, Pa., and Belmar, N.J. The privately held company doesn’t release sales figures, but has seen double-digit sales increases over the last few years, according to Kabat.
“The plan is to continue looking for opportunities to increase our store count,” Kabat said. “We see a lot of room for our stores, and we are really excited about our mall concept.”
Blades in March opened a new prototype store in a mall in suburban Freehold, N.J., that carries more apparel and soft goods. At 3,000 square feet, it is larger than most of the urban-based units.
“Five years ago, we couldn’t have opened a mall-based store because the concept wasn’t mainstreamed enough, but now our mix caters to a broader demographic,” Kabat said. “We see a lot of legs for this concept. We are not getting away from our authentic roots, but we are offering more and more lifestyle options that cater not just to enthusiasts of these sports.”
When asked about the potential for an initial public offering, Kabat said opening new stores is “capital intensive” and that going public is a “viable option.”
The stores are now overflowing with a broad range of product categories, from skateboards to wallets to hip-hop music.
As the store has evolved, women shoppers have become more important for the chain and now account for about half of overall sales, according to Kabat.
Blades started carrying snowboards designed for women about five years ago, and offerings for women have expanded dramatically since that time. Other products tailored to women are specially designed in-line skates and an ever-growing selection of apparel.
“Women’s sports are being pushed so much,” said Sandra Rossi, the chain’s buyer for soft goods. “Companies like Burton are really focusing on it.”
The initial apparel offerings at Blades were focused on jeans and T-shirts. Now, the firm carries a wide range of apparel, including skirts and coats, shorts, sweatpants and T-shirts. Apparel is now the firm’s second largest category, after hard goods.
Women’s swimsuits were introduced about two years ago, and the category has “exploded,” according to Rossi.
“The vendors that are most successful at tapping into the women’s market are beginning to clearly identify it as a distinct marketplace,” Kabat observed. “The action-sport-lifestyle offerings in the past have been very slim-pickings for the women. A lot of vendors are recognizing their unique needs and cares and are introducing line extensions or new brands.”
Among the women’s apparel brands it carries are well-known sport labels such as Roxy and Billabong, as well as lesser known brands like Mooks, Suburban and Hurley.
“We try to stay away from brands that are not technical in nature and can’t hold up,” said Rossi. “Also, we need to differentiate ourselves from other sports-inspired chains such as Pacific Sunwear of California.”
Private-label apparel, currently a very small part of the fashion offerings, is starting to become a more important part of the business as the company expands its store base, according to Kabat.
He noted that the firm doesn’t have the fashion risks inherent to many other chains, because “we stay close to the sports.
“A lot of apparel retailers got hurt last year by focusing too much on wide-legged jeans, but we didn’t do that,” he said. “Our buys are nice and tight.”
However, he did note that Blades is going deeper into some categories such as accessories and footwear, particularly in the mall concepts that have more room for experimentation.
While there is definitely a fashion element to the apparel offerings, durability is an essential ingredient for the clothing it carries. Every item must be able to meet the functional requirements imposed by sports that demand durability. Kabat noted that the sports Blades caters to are often forms of self-expression that are embodied in the clothing the participants wear.
While it has dramatically expanded its product offering, the chain walks a fine balance between catering to cool and expanding its reach.
Store executives shun the term “poser,” but pride themselves on offering brands that have “authenticity,” according to Kelliher.
The store employees are critical to helping the chain stay on top of current trends in the activewear market. “Our staff is out there all the time, testing apparel and equipment,” Kabat said. “They are active in the sports, they understand the culture and they are interested in the apparel and fashion that goes along with it. Customers like it because they can come in and talk to the staff and they know we are not making it up.”
Rossi for example, started working at the chain because she was a snowboarder and was able to get free lift tickets by working at the store, an incentive that has proven to be effective in hiring many young staff members.
Blades still rents in-line skates as well as skateboards, and it also offers snowboarding day trips in-season, as often as three times a week during the peak periods. The day trips, which cost about $55, include a bus ride to and from Hunter Mountain, breakfast, a movie, lift tickets, a snack and a raffle.
In addition, the chain has boosted its marketing by sponsoring different sporting events such as The Blades Monster Park Battle, a snowboarding event, and by offering in-line skate lessons and free clinics in Central Park.
“People come here for the environment,” said Rossi. “Even if they aren’t participating in the sports, we are going to have something they want.”