Becker Buyer Carol Nielsen’s View Of The Women’s Market

She grew up with them—the surf industry big wigs, the company CEOs, and the businessmen. “I used to catch the bus with all those guys, laughs Carol Nielsen, Becker Surfboards women’s buyer. Neilson’s spent her entire two-decade-and-counting career buying for companies like Newport Surf & Sport, Pacific Sunwear, and now Becker, and she admits it’s been nice having those guys on her team.

But like any girl who’s spent a prolonged amount of time rolling around in the dirt with the boys, Nielsen welcomed the opportunity to throw on a skirt and accessorize. And guess what? She cleans up nice. So scoot over boys, because if the booming women’s surf category is the new kid in town, Nielsen’s just the girl to show her around campus.

With five high-volume stores and a thriving online business to buy for, you might not envy the magnitude of the job Nielsen performs day in and day out—especially when you factor in the added stress of having to predict what to do in a market still considered to be in its infancy. But if anyone understands the emerging women’s market, it’s Nielsen, and since her biggest concern seems to be curtailing the girls’ stock so that it doesn’t take over the whole shop, I’d say she’s doing just fine.

How would you describe the growth and current health of the women’s category at Becker?
Carol Nielsen:
Unbelievable. It’s better than I could have ever imagined. Back when I first started, there were a few weird little lines, but there was no girls’ industry. There were a few Balinese companies, but the only real surf company with anything going on was Gotcha with their swimwear line. It’s amazing. It’s just evolved into this amazing industry that won’t go backwards because it’s too strong and too healthy. Plus, now all these companies see how much money they can make on it and how these stores need this.

Which segment of your women’s division—hardgoods, footwear, apparel, et cetera—would you say is shining at Becker right now?
Well, after this summer with women’s surfing becoming bigger and better than ever, our biggest growth was probably in actual surfboards sales. Sportswear is still really strong, but within the sportswear division we’ve experienced this boardshorts phenomenon. I’ve always inventoried boardshorts very deep, but this year it was just unbelievable because little girls from five to six years old to 60 year olds were buying every length of boardshort imaginable. That’s probably the biggest jump in sales—boardshorts.

Describe your buying and visual merchandising strategies and how they’ve changed as the women’s market has grown and received more mainstream attention?
I still like to present a boutique surf shop per se, but in reality, when you look at the hard numbers, we’re really doing surf-shop sales—it’s really the boardshorts, the sandals, and other hardgoods that encompass surfing. If we just stay true to surf, to ‘core surf, we’re good.

Then I like to get the little fringy lines that the girls like to buy but can’t find everywhere, because a lot of the time you can find most of the product from the big companies pretty much anywhere. If I buy a lot of odd, random brands to kind of filter in and give the shop a good flavor, that seems to work best.

Have you amended your buying approach since the women’s market has blown up? Are you buying more of those fashion-forward fringe lines?
I’m buying more of everything—even little girls’ {lines}. Little girls’ {lines} kind of took a hiatus in 2002 because I think both the moms and the girls wanted to see if we were committed to little girls. They don’t really want cutesy, but the mom doesn’t want them in all of that teenagey stuff either, there’s a fine line there.

How have your open-to-buy dollars for women’s changed?
It’s amazing. I feel really lucky to be working with Dave {Hollander, Becker owner and president} because he’s allowed me the ability to take this on and just make happen. I’ve worked here for sixteen years, so I guess I’ve proven to him that I can do this, that I don’t drop the ball and we keep it going. It’s grown from what was originally ten percent {of Becker’s open to buy} to what is now about half. Honestly, we probably don’t want to see it grow too much more in size because then it would become a girls’ store.

Which brands are most important to your shop?
Billabong—which has changed dramatically—and Volcom. Volcom makes up the bulk of what I buy, but Billabong has come on like gangbusters in categories that I see as being very important. Billabong came off of the last year with Blue Crush and the whole girl push with the strongest swim, boardshort, and active-girl product.

Volcom still offers a lot of really interesting designs. They’re willing to let Summer {Salvador, Volcom Girls design director} test a lot of very novel things that are really fun, and that’s grown amazingly.

Roxy is still important, but I’d say those other two have really jumped into the game wholeheartedly this last year. It’s made it really fun. It’s made it so that Roxy and I aren’t so codependant on each other. Roxy used to own almost all of my floor space. If I pull all of the divisions of Roxy, they’d probably still own most of my dollars, but now when you take look at junior sportswear, it’s a horse race. It’s nose-to-nose and pretty awesome.

So how big of an impact has the introduction of additional women’s lines had on Roxy sales in recent years?
My dollars have increased and everybody has been elevated. But honestly, they ask me this question all the time at Roxy. They want to know how much less we’re doing. Sportswear may be the one area where I’ve taken a little bit of a hit, but they’ve added some key people over there who I fully expect to keep Roxy solid and climbing; they’re not going anywhere.

How do you tackle the order-writing process?
Usually I’ll just stay up until I’m so tired that I just have to go to bed. I like to do it right away because otherwise it’s not fresh in my mind. I kind of know in my head what I’m thinking beforehand, but there can always be surprises. I like to spread my dollars a little bit—try to give everybody a little love.

So what I do is I get it in the computer with the best stuff, and I always have numbers from the prior year of what certain vendors do. I try to tackle it immediately, but I don’t usually release paper until I’ve seen 90 percent because I always make last-minute adjustments.

And it’s hard because we’re already pretty much done with {our orders for} spring and it’s just October 1, and then we’ll roll right into summer. A lot of times you’ll need to see how that prior season is performing, because girls—unlike men where you can stay very basic—are very, very trendy and fickle. You’ve got to be on that trend to get all that you can out of the consumer, because when they’re over it, they’re over it. If you still have it, you’re bummed.

Becker is known for its amazing online business. Is the women’s market half or more of that equation?
I don’t know. You’d have to ask the big guys. I’m not supposed to talk about that stuff. I know there are times—especially in the key periods like Christmas—when some of our {women’s} vendors are our top vendors. We do well with easy-to-sell items, where it’s not a fit issue like accessories or shoes. For instance, sandals are amazing.

And for women, we sort of defied all odds this summer with swim. We put swimwear on there, and it did amazingly well with a no-return-if-the-tags-were-off policy. I don’t think we had that many returns, so it was really amazing that swimwear did as well as it did.

What’s your view of the women’s market’s future growth, and are we at the top of its popularity curve or just starting to climb?
It amazes me that every month we’re doing better than the month before, we’re not really in a decline. When you look at the stats, you see that it’s still climbing. I just keep trying to jockey around the mix. I would hope for my job stability that it continues to climb. I don’t see it going anywhere except level or up, but I don’t know how much more up it can go.

Wetsuits and rashguards were two huge things this year. We did huge units of rashguards, and what does that tell you? It says that girls are out in the water and they’re being active. With more people surfing and the embracing of the little girl surfing and being in the water, it’s an exciting time for surfing.

What should manufacturers do to nurture the growth and protect the market?
I think the distribution issue is the biggest thing. Volcom is our model company right now because their growth has been real slow and sure. Unlike some other companies, they haven’t opened up to everybody. It gets to the point where if you can find it everywhere, the girls don’t want it. So I think distribution is important and avoiding selling out to keep growing.

Manufacturers also need to figure out their internal workings so that they don’t have to grow so much to make money. They need to work smart, not sit on a lot of dead stock, and work on production so they’re making the right amount of product. It’s a very complicated thing. You have to make sure the product comes in right and that it’s made right so we don’t return {it} so that they don’t eat it. It’s a complicated process.

Do you think most retailers and manufacturers are doing enough to maximize the women’s category?
There are a few doing what they have to do because it’s become so competitive. Certain companies have taken risks along the way that have really proven beneficial to the whole industry—like Billabong. That catapulted this whole push. We were doing fine, but it just pushed us into a whole different realm of opening up that many more girls to shopping at surf shops.

Why wouldn’t you want to shop at a local shop if they’re offering enough product that’s sellable and cute? If they can keep the pricepoints reasonable so it’s still affordable? I think that’s so important.

With respect to both online and in-store retail sales, do you have any concerns for smaller surf-specific retailers competing with the larger mall outlets latching onto the popularity of female surfing right now?
You know, I’ve watched it so many times over the years, the ebb and flow of that. Surf will be hot, and they’ll jump in. People who have been in the industry long enough know the result. Those stores don’t stick with it. They don’t embrace it the way we do. We don’t ever turn our back on it. It’s who we are and what we do.

When a company gets so big, they don’t really embrace the surf culture anyway because they need to knock it off to accommodate that huge number of stores, and ultimately it always comes down to private labels. Yeah, we do our own fair share of private label because people like our label and it kind of transcends any age group. But the big {retail} companies, they’ll take a good idea and just squash it. You see it all the time. Like PacSun doing the Paul Frank monkey. But at the same time, people who shop here want the original thing. They want the Rainbow sandals and the real Paul Frank. They want the real deal, the original—not the knockoff.

With the exception of a few, most all-girl surf shops haven’t stayed in business very long. Do you see this surge in women’s product prompting more female-only shops, or is it still too risky an enterprise?
Girls are fickle. Because we have five stores and a little more buying power, I’m able to buy a little deeper. Plus, I’m able to move product if it’s not working down south but will probably work up north.

So from that perspective, when you have a free-standing store, which most of these little shops are, you’ve got to really work your deal, and they don’t have a lot of room to do that. Then there’s the whole other additive of online. stats, you see that it’s still climbing. I just keep trying to jockey around the mix. I would hope for my job stability that it continues to climb. I don’t see it going anywhere except level or up, but I don’t know how much more up it can go.

Wetsuits and rashguards were two huge things this year. We did huge units of rashguards, and what does that tell you? It says that girls are out in the water and they’re being active. With more people surfing and the embracing of the little girl surfing and being in the water, it’s an exciting time for surfing.

What should manufacturers do to nurture the growth and protect the market?
I think the distribution issue is the biggest thing. Volcom is our model company right now because their growth has been real slow and sure. Unlike some other companies, they haven’t opened up to everybody. It gets to the point where if you can find it everywhere, the girls don’t want it. So I think distribution is important and avoiding selling out to keep growing.

Manufacturers also need to figure out their internal workings so that they don’t have to grow so much to make money. They need to work smart, not sit on a lot of dead stock, and work on production so they’re making the right amount of product. It’s a very complicated thing. You have to make sure the product comes in right and that it’s made right so we don’t return {it} so that they don’t eat it. It’s a complicated process.

Do you think most retailers and manufacturers are doing enough to maximize the women’s category?
There are a few doing what they have to do because it’s become so competitive. Certain companies have taken risks along the way that have really proven beneficial to the whole industry—like Billabong. That catapulted this whole push. We were doing fine, but it just pushed us into a whole different realm of opening up that many more girls to shopping at surf shops.

Why wouldn’t you want to shop at a local shop if they’re offering enough product that’s sellable and cute? If they can keep the pricepoints reasonable so it’s still affordable? I think that’s so important.

With respect to both online and in-store retail sales, do you have any concerns for smaller surf-specific retailers competing with the larger mall outlets latching onto the popularity of female surfing right now?
You know, I’ve watched it so many times over the years, the ebb and flow of that. Surf will be hot, and they’ll jump in. People who have been in the industry long enough know the result. Those stores don’t stick with it. They don’t embrace it the way we do. We don’t ever turn our back on it. It’s who we are and what we do.

When a company gets so big, they don’t really embrace the surf culture anyway because they need to knock it off to accommodate that huge number of stores, and ultimately it always comes down to private labels. Yeah, we do our own fair share of private label because people like our label and it kind of transcends any age group. But the big {retail} companies, they’ll take a good idea and just squash it. You see it all the time. Like PacSun doing the Paul Frank monkey. But at the same time, people who shop here want the original thing. They want the Rainbow sandals and the real Paul Frank. They want the real deal, the original—not the knockoff.

With the exception of a few, most all-girl surf shops haven’t stayed in business very long. Do you see this surge in women’s product prompting more female-only shops, or is it still too risky an enterprise?
Girls are fickle. Because we have five stores and a little more buying power, I’m able to buy a little deeper. Plus, I’m able to move product if it’s not working down south but will probably work up north.

So from that perspective, when you have a free-standing store, which most of these little shops are, you’ve got to really work your deal, and they don’t have a lot of room to do that. Then there’s the whole other additive of online. That’s accelerated our business even more. We don’t buy for the Internet; we just utilize the product from our stores. So even if we’ve been sitting on something for two years, if we put it on the Web, it becomes a new product to the person online, and sometimes things come around, too. It might not have been cool two years ago, but we still own it.

It’s a funny thing. Dave’s pretty smart. He’s made some pretty smart moves, so it’s made my job easy in that respect.

— By Melissa Buckleyne. That’s accelerated our business even more. We don’t buy for the Internet; we just utilize the product from our stores. So even if we’ve been sitting on something for two years, if we put it on the Web, it becomes a new product to the person online, and sometimes things come around, too. It might not have been cool two years ago, but we still own it.

It’s a funny thing. Dave’s pretty smart. He’s made some pretty smart moves, so it’s made my job easy in that respect.

— By Melissa Buckley