LOS ANGELES — Active Ride Shop is perhaps the biggest little skate shop fleet in Southern California. That is, it’s got the intimacy of the neighborhood shop where associates are friendly and know their customers, but a sizable footprint at 25 doors in the region.
The company in May quietly traded hands to Chatsworth, Calif.-based apparel manufacturer APS Global as Active veteran and president Jenner Heller continues to steer the ship. The company’s already made quick moves to get the business in shape under APS, shuttering five underperforming stores, including an out-of-state location, and is focused on smarter buying and merchandising as the company next year looks to cross the 30-year mark.
“We like the idea of remaining a little big tighter and smaller, really strengthening our positioning in the communities we’re in,” Heller said of the door count. “I think a big part of our brand directive is to really be connected within our communities. What we’ve established and what we want to apply going forward is to just make sure we’re strongly rooted in the communities we’re in. It doesn’t mean there’s not opportunities to enter new communities, but I think we just want to be selective with that.”
The company’s also looking at reducing inventory by buying less, reestablishing connections with vendors and being less promotional. At the merchandising level, there’s a refining of what Heller called its point of view, while exploring opportunities in more fashionable offerings.
The guiding signpost for product remains simple, Heller explained: “Skate represents street culture, art and music and those things are all interconnected. We always try to make sure whatever we’re behind has some sort of connection or tie back to skate culture, street culture or Southern California. Those are things we use as filters to make sure we don’t get too far out in left field.”
Sales are flat to down, but the measures taken, Heller said, have set the business up in a healthier position going forward.
There’s also the online store to consider when it comes to capitalizing on growth opportunities, he said. Brick-and-mortar will continue to be important but, where the company can, it will reduce the stores’ average footprint of 5,500 square feet to around 3,500. Locations vary widely in size from 2,700 square feet in Redlands to 10,000 square feet in Riverside.
Active’s been a staple in the Southern California market since 1989, with skaters and nonskaters alike aware of the brand and its mix of hard goods, apparel and accessories offering heritage brands such as RVCA, Volcom, Brixton and The Hundreds, along with younger lines such as Paterson and Welcome.
The customer base skews about 80 percent male, so there’s plenty of room to build the female business, Heller said, especially as skateboarding awareness grows and given the manufacturing background of Active’s new parent.
Ultimately, many of the labels in store are still similar to that of, for example, Anaheim-based PacSun or Tilly’s Inc. headquartered in Irvine, and smaller shops such as Jack’s Surfboards. So Active differentiates by being the local shop, akin to that local record store, where associates know customers and if they don’t, they’re treated the same nonetheless. That welcoming feeling is what stuck out to Heller when he stepped foot in his local Active shop in San Dimas and met with one of the founder’s sons.
“From the moment I walked in, he acted as if he knew me,” Heller said. “As I’ve grown through the years at Active, I’ve realized that that’s the experience you got coming in, that sense of belonging and welcoming as if they knew me all along.”
Heller himself went on to become a sponsored rider for Active around 1997 before being hired in 1999 at the Chino store. He went on to run his own store before being named vice president of operations, overseeing all locations and the training of employees. He was named president in 2015, a year after Tengram Capital Partners injected an undisclosed sum into the business.
The tie with kids, some of whom simply come and hang out at the store, is part of what Heller means when he talks about keeping close to the community. Each store sponsors anywhere from five to 10 skateboarders within their local communities, with the overall group — totaling more than 200 — dubbed the Active Army. There are also around a dozen pro skateboarders the company sponsors with anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of those athletes having come up through the Active Army. The company, for back-to-school, ran a $100,000 giveaway aimed at supporting Southern California high school athletic programs with winners to be announced this month.
Active’s own roots are engrained in the brand, which was established in the Inland Empire, a tertiary market within Southern California that lies east of Los Angeles. It’s ground central to anyone who studies goods movement, largely serving as the staging area for product moving from the ports out to the rest of the country and is one of the last places in the region filled with large plots of land ripe for development, dotted with cities in varying stages of economic maturity.
It’s a different lens — no better or worse — than the roots of other brands within the action sports or streetwear space from California that may draw influences from Orange County’s coastal communities or more urban areas such as Los Angeles.
“As much as we’re in Southern California, our roots and heritage are the Inland Empire,” Heller said. “We haven’t grown up by the beach necessarily. So, as much as Southern California lifestyle and surfing is an influence, we’ve been much more focused on skate, streetwear, even snowboarding to a degree would probably be more of our heritage than surf. The fact that streetwear has seen an uptick has helped us because that’s the world we live in. In general, a big differentiating factor with skateboarding and streetwear is that it is influenced by a lot of other things, like art, music and even media.”
With street-inspired fashion and brands continuing to gain traction in the mainstream and the pace of change only quickening, it’s an interesting time to oversee a retail chain, but the kid shopping Active back when it started is the same as today — literally.
“Active’s unique in the sense that that kid who shopped with us a long time ago still shops with us — not as a kid, which is great,” Heller said. “We love that and that’s probably more prevalent in some stores than in others, but in general our customer has remained the same in the sense of how old they are and what they’re into. But what that kid wants within that age group, it’s completely different than that same kid 10 years ago. It’s new brands. It’s new styles. There’s always trends that are coming in and out. I grew up in a day where you didn’t walk out of the house if you weren’t head-to-toe with a brand and now it’s like, you don’t walk out of the house wearing two articles of clothing representing the same brand.”
The fundamentals have changed. People now shop more on their phones, trends continue to cycle in and out and real estate ebbs and flows. Heller sees those factors as both challenges and opportunities to remain relevant, and the current health of the business sets its up nicely to play offensive.
“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” he said. “You’ve got to pay attention to these things that are going on. You’ve got to be willing to be nimble and evolve, and I think that goes back to even just our size and how we want to grow. The one thing we’ve seen that’s allowed us to be successful is our ability to adapt and it’s easier to adapt when you’re not too big.”