How our surf brands left the beach behind

During my store walks over the past year I have walked many surf brand stores. I walked them in normal suburban strip malls, in mega malls, duty free zones and as store-in-stores in major department stores. These visits spanned regional and metro areas – I visited them where they were not only relevant, but iconic, and also the home beach of brands such as Rip Curl, Billabong and Quiksilver.

My visits have taken me from Huntington Beach in Orange County, Southern California to the Gold Coast in Queensland, and even just last week to Torquay near Bells Beach on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria. I also surf patrol at Newport Beach in New South Wales and have had the pleasure of talking with Nick Carroll, arguably Australia’s most articulate and erudite surf icon, so I have more than a passing interest in these brands, the stores and their heritage.

As a young marketer, and still as a shopper, I truly believe that heritage, authenticity and a deep-seated involvement in your core offering means a huge amount to your core shoppers and adds value to shoppers who dip in and out of your brand. As examples, several Nike execs are ultra marathon runners, and Porsche and Ferrari learn from a race track somewhere almost every day and apply that learning to their cars.

In Torquay I walked all the main and iconic big, bright, airy and beautifully designed surf brand stores, and unusually combined a store walk with shopping for myself. Sounds strange but shopping for myself is a very different mindset than putting yourself in other shoppers’ minds, where you see and experience retail environments in an unbiased way.

So, back to my shopping expedition. I was looking for a long sleeve rashy, as I paddle ocean skis in distance events and my forearms are cooked by our beautiful, but unforgiving sun. To find a surfboard, rashy or a wetsuit was a challenge in all stores bar one, and it was not a corporate store but a re-seller of all surf brands. And a long sleeve rashy costs $59.99 in every one of the five major corporate stores I visited. And whether they just appeared to come from the same factory, or are all just an incredibly similar design, I don’t know, but all appeared identical other than the branding.

“Who cares?” I can hear you all asking. Surfing is a niche sport. Wearing surf-related clothing is not niche – it is a huge clothing sector. Well, core surf shoppers do care, and they are the backbone of the brand.

However, brands such as Hollister are now very dominant players in surf clothing but Hollister has never shaped a board or worked on the neck design of a wetsuit that will keep you warm but not chafe. It sells “SoCal lifestyle clothes for Dudes and Bettys” and is owned by Abercrombie & Fitch, but its stores and fashion clothing offerings are just the same as iconic heritage brands who grew up on the beach.

I don’t profess to have the panacea for the cold winds that are blowing through the boardrooms of the largest surf brand companies, but I would humbly suggest that debt level is not the only issue. Shoppers can’t see balance sheets, banking covenants or stock prices. They simply walk into attractive stores that are relevant to their lifestyle. Perhaps the turnaround will start at store level with products more closely linked with heritage. That at least would put some space in shoppers’ minds between the “true” surf brands that grew up, and still live on the beach, and those that were created in an agency.

In his role as CEO of CROSSMARK, Kevin Moore looks at the world of retailing from grocery to pharmacy, bottle shops to car dealers, corner store to department stores. In this insightful blog, Kevin covers retail news, ideas, companies and emerging opportunities in Australia, NZ, the US and Europe. His international career in sales and marketing has seen him responsible for business in over 40 countries, which has earned him grey hair and a wealth of expertise in international retailers and brands. CROSSMARK Asia Pacific is Australasia’s largest provider of retail marketing services, consulting to and servicing some of Australasia’s biggest retailers and manufacturers.

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