A Hard Look At Softboards

It’s no secret that the last decade has seen more people learn to surf than any other time in history. This fact seems to be the new rallying cry for the surf industry—it also happens to be true. And while surf-related companies high and low have benefited from the upsurge, perhaps no sector has benefited more directly than softboard manufacturers. Where there used to be only a few companies producing softboards, now there are at least ten, and most say they can’t keep up with demand.

So is this softboards boom translating to retail sales as well? The answer is yes. While soft surfboards used to be the red-headed stepchildren of the sales floor, retailers now view softies as a profitable category and are giving them more respect—and rack space.

“We created space for them because there’s some margin there, says Matt Rimer, manager and surfboard buyer for ZJ Boarding House in Santa Monica, California, “and what retail manager isn’t looking for that? Softboard margins are at about 40 percent, according to retailers, which doubles what shops make on most hardboards.

As if the almighty margin wasn’t a good enough reason to stock a product, softboards also prove to be quite versatile in turning a profit. Compared to fiberglass shortboards, softboards have a broader range of possible customers and ways to generate income. Beyond making a normal retail sale, many shops use them to generate money with surf lessons. Also, if the shop rents boards, they can use any softies that aren’t selling in the rental fleet.

“Now compare that to a typical fiberglass six-four, says Louis Hayward, president of INT Softboards. “If a guy doesn’t come in who wants to buy that particular board, it will sit in the rack a long time. But an eight-foot softboard on the rack, say it’s not moving… Well, just throw it in the rental fleet and all of a sudden that board is creating cash flow.

Despite all the upsides, softboards aren’t all wine and roses. The softer materials used to coddle a blossoming surfer can have disadvantages in the retail environment. “They turn so fast that it’s rarely a problem, but they {softboards} can get shop-worn, says Mark Richards at Val Surf.

In addition, because softboard customers often have little knowledge about surfboards, they may require more customer-service time than other shoppers. “The softboard customer is much more of a beginner and so relies on us more for guidance, he adds. If the shop is packed and you’re understaffed, this can be a problem. But if an employee can spend the extra time with a new customer, it’s a great opportunity to snag a consumer who will need more equipment in the future, assuming they keep with it.

Part of keeping the customer’s confidence is letting them know exactly what to expect from the product they’re buying. Customers who keep surfing will likely want to trade up to a hardboard someday. It seems like an obvious point, but someone new to the sport might be imagining themselves riding that same softboard in the Pipe Master’s finals after a few years of dedicated practice. You probably don’t need to squash their dreams, but you should make clear the limitations of the equipment.

However, some manufacturers are making boards they claim extend the use of a softboard beyond the initial learning stages. John Cash of SCSI, makers of Doyle-brand boards, says their use of polypropylene (most manufacturers use polyethylene) enhances performance. “Customers can take their learning skills a lot further on the new Doyles than they can on some of the older-style softboards, says Cash. The Softops line by Surftech also tout performance, although with a hard epoxy/fiberglass construction and a soft EVA foam-rubber coating on the deck and rails, they’re actually somewhere between a softboard and hardboard.

One manufacturer who many say is pushing softboards into the future is Hayward over at INT. “After having two or three different brands in here, we’ve narrowed it down to jusst them, says Chuck Bourgeois of Sweetwater Surf Shop in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, who likes the rounded rails the INT boards have: “They’re just a more rideable, surfable product.

Part of this unique rail construction incorporates custom colorways that Hayward says are changing the way people think about softboard colors, while also adding to rack appeal. “Five years ago, when people thought of softboards in terms of color, you’d think either blue or yellow, he says. “But what we did was create color variety in a pinline around the board.

You may remember INT as the company that invented the Blackball Beater, a 4’11 soft surfboard with fins that, due to its micro size, can be ridden in swimming-only-designated areas. Hayward and crew have some new stuff in the works, too. And although he won’t go into detail about it yet, Hayward is fired up about an innovative product they’ve been working on that will be ready for the January trade shows. “The process that we’ll be doing is going to allow the shapers to get markets they’ve never had, and they otherwise never would, says Hayward. “Between fiberglass and epoxy, there’s all these categories opening up, and we’re trying to fill those voids and offer something that has never been offered in surfing before.