Eye On North Carolina: Storm Watch 2003

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It’s early morning on Monday, September 15, and I’m driving fast through North Carolina’s tobacco country — heading for the coast — and a strange calm is on the land.

Just 48-hours earlier, Hurricane Isabel was upgraded to a Category 5 storm — the top of the Saffir-Simpson scale — with sustained winds of 160 miles an hour. The NOAA “hurricane hunter aircraft sent to penetrate the storm that day reported eyewall gusts nearing 200 mph.

In about 72 hours the storm is predicted to make landfall roughly on top of me, along the stretch of coast from Nags Head to Wilmington — an area that’s seen five hurricanes in the last four years.

But none of those storms looked like Isabel does now. I’m told North Carolina building codes mandate structures be built to withstand winds of 130 mph. If Isabel lumbers ashore as a “Cat Five storm, the consensus is it will scour the coast bare like God’s own Brillo pad — nothing could be expected to survive.

So as I lean forward in my car seat and crane up at the sky, every cloud on this peaceful morning takes on ominous significance.

It’s been months since TransWorld SURF Business planned a surf-shop tour along this wave-rich stretch of the southern Outer Banks coastline. Now I’m wondering if I’ll bear witness to mass destruction. I’m wondering if any of the shops will even be open or if the owners will have time to talk. I’m also wondering how many sessions I can squeeze in before the looming Apocalypse arrives.

I’ve got to keep things in perspective right?

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Marsh’s Surf Shop
Atlantic Beach
9/15/03, 10:15 a.m.

It’s been 31 years since Marsh’s Surf Shop opened its doors, but Owner Mickey Marsh looks worried this morning. I’ve just pulled in from the Fort Macon lineup (which was overhead, offshore, and eerily deserted) to find Marsh intently talking to a storm-shutter salesman.

Marsh’s shop is just off the causeway that spans Bogue Sound and seems surrounded by water. Paige Black, the store’s manager, answers my questions while Marsh decides how to best protect his store.

She explains how the mid-sized shop will soon expand the square footage of its juniors’ department. “It’s been one the most profitable areas of the store, she says. The department is on your right as you enter the store — typically a retailer’s most high-traffic area — and is stocked with Billabong Girls, Roxy, Rip Curl Girls, and more.

Black says that while the store has a local following, it sees lots of tourist dollars too. “They come from the Raleigh area, but we draw from the whole East Coast, she says. “Just this week we’ve had shoppers from Georgia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas.

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“Many of them are T-shirt shoppers who just want some sort of a souvenir from the area, she continues. “We also have the local teenage crowd and the moms coming in to buy things for their kids. It’s a good mix.

The big problem, however, is a crisis that’s affected N.C. retailers of almost every stripe: a new school schedule that returned students to class on August 11. “The season is just so short now, she says. “The teenage age group is what we’re geared for, so once school’s back business really dwindles.

But coming off of a successful summer, she’s not complaining: “We were very lucky that we had a warm April and then terrific weather all the way through September.

In addition to the shop’s booming private-label T-shirt business, Black says the shop’s sandal business rocked around the summer clock: “We have the largest selection of Rainbow Sandals on Atlantic Beach. Those have been hot all summer, and we had a lot of them on back order — especially with women’s sizes.

Indeed, a tall rack of Rainbows dominate prime real estate near the counter, and separate the men’s and junior’s departments.

Reef sandals are also selling well, says Black, helped in part by company rep Brad Beach: “He comes in, inventories what we have, helps set up splays, and really works to make his product do well for us.

The menswear department is filled with the majors — Quiksilver, Billabong, Hurley, and Rip Curl in particular — and there’s a decent selection of men’s and women’s wetsuits from Rip Curl and Quiksilver against the far wall. Nearby is a colorful collection of private-label Lycra clearly targeted to the women’s market. “We’ve worked really hard to promote our signature items, says Black.

The shop is also considering expanding its better menswear department, and looked at lines such as Kahala at Surf Expo. “The better men’s lines have better margins than surf {apparel lines do}, and a lot of times you can react really quickly and get reorders.

Bert’s Surf Shop
Atlantic Beach
9/15/03, 11:15 a.m.
The News Channel 3 van has just arrived at the Atlantic Beach pier as I pull up in front of Bert’s Surf Shop — just down the road from Marsh’s. Apparently news trucks like these become common sights when hurricanes approach. There’s even a whole subset of jokes about Jim Cantore — the Weather Channel’s storm chaser — that are Outer Banks staples.

“Everybody’s boarding up, or starting to board up, says Tricia Mason, one of the assistant managers at Bert’s, when I ask about the approaching storm. “We’re going to be boarding up tomorrow, and once they shut the bridge down, we shut down.

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There are eight Bert’s Surf Shops that stretch along the outer banks and down into Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Bert Pearson founded the chain in 1965. “He still comes in every week or so and works the floor, says Jane Esala, the store’s other assistant manager.

The store is a hodgepodge of all things beach and action-sports related: apparel, accessories, beach cruisers, chairs, skimboards, and skateboards are just some of the categories carried — along with an avalanche of private-label T-shirts and doodads. There’s also a selection of Bert’s private-label surfboards.

“Summer sales were about the same as the year before — which were pretty good, says Mason. Like Marsh’s, the assistant managers at Bert’s are quick to mention Rainbow Sandals as hot sellers. “It’s the fad, says Escala. “They’re really good sandals — and that’s part of it — but it’s a lot about the fad. Everybody’s having a hard time keeping them in stock. They can’t make them fast enough.

Escala also mentions that Bert’s has the biggest selection of skate hardgoods on the beach. The whole strategy is to appeal to a broad cross section of customers, and given the area’s demographics, that might not be a bad idea. “We’re a small town, says Mason. “Wilmington, Carolina Beach, and Myrtle Beach have bigger populations, so they do more year-round business than us. Wilmington, for example, has the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. We, on the other hand, have three high schools and tourists who leave during winter. There are people who surf in the winter. They’ll come in and buy the thickest wetsuit they can buy along with booties, gloves, a hood, and all the rest, but they’re a small, hardcore crowd.

Quiksilver, Rip Curl, and Billabong are the store’s top sellers — followed by O’Neill, Hurley, Volcom, and Rusty. T-shirt sales among those brands have been okay, while sales of the in-house line have been extremely strong. “Especially our nine-dollar tees — it’s ridiculous how many of those we sell. We have to replenish those every week, says Esala.

Atlantic Beach Surf Shop
Atlantic Beach
9/15/03, 1:30 p.m.
If surf retailing in North Carolina has an alpha point, you can probably find it under Tommy Morrow’s desk. “We opened in 1964, says the gregarious Morrow, as he tours me through his amazingly merchandised store. “I was the first surf shop in North Carolina.

He shows me an old photo of the shop’s original storefront, complete with an old station wagon and two scruffy looking kids in the foreground. “That’s {East Coast surfing legend} Wes Laine, grins Morrow. “I sold him his first board. He says he was nine or ten in this photo. His dad was stationed at Camp Lejeune. That’s Randy, his brother, who was old enough drive.

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The photo emphasizes the shop’s visual merchandising transformation from a typical dusty surf shop to today’s slick incarnation. AB Surf Shop moved to its current location in 1982 and the building received a major renovation in ’92. “I had a guy out of New York come down and do the whole inside. We tore down some old barns and used the wood to completely update the interior, says Morrow. The fixtures and lighting are about as good as any I’ve seen.

We head to the back office, which is shared by two dogs — Hannah and Cody — and Tommy’s two sons, Chuck and John. Despite the hurricane warnings the sons (who help run the family business) are busy writing orders. “We had to place these orders today to get all the discounts, says Donny. “Then we’ll go home, move our boats, and start putting up plywood on our houses.

Summer sales were good for the store. “It’s all due to young juniors and surf, says Morrow. “My men’s department is way off — as is most men’s retail business. In Charlotte — which is our better-men’s clothing market — the men’s apparel stores are in bad shape.

“Surfboard sales, however, are the best I’ve seen in years, he continues. “I’m doing unbelievably well with Surf Tech. I’m making 35 percent with them. I’ve never made that kind of money with surfboards. We stock between 250 to 300 of their boards.

Morrow echoes a common exclamation when talking about his board sales to women: “It’s unbelievable! I’ve never seen this much interest from girls. I’m as excited about juniors getting back in surf as I am about anything. They’re the best customers anybody can have. They’ll buy three or four 80-dollar swimsuits a year at full price.

Morrow recently hired Allison Burns as junior’s buyer manager. “She’s worked for me since she was fifteen, and she’s graduating from N.C. State this year with a degree in textiles. She loves fashion and retail.

We’re interrupted by the news that a mandatory evacuation is underway of Ocracoke Island, a small community about 70 miles to the northeast that’s only accessible by ferry boat. “So soon? is the general reaction.

Morrow says retailing in North Carolina takes a special touch. “The Southeast has always been traditional — preppy even, he says. “Plus, it’s not like California where one city limit line ends and another begins. Our county population is 60,000 in the wintertime. If only ten percent of that population is interested in surfing, that’s not many consumers to draw from.

Like at Marsh’s, the new school schedule has Morrow worried. “I can compete with anybody in the world at retailing, he says, suddenly dead serious. “But if no one is in town, I can’t sell anything. North Carolina is even considering a year-round schedule. That would be disastrous. Some say, ‘Well you’ll get vacationers all year.’ Who’d come to the beach in the winter when the water temp is 40 degrees?

However, after 40 years in the business, not much seems to rattle Morrow — even the shifting sands of product distribution. “We create the mystique and the demand, he says about his fellow specialty retailers. “Then the product goes to department stores. That’s why we’re always trying to find somebody new. Well, in the menswear business right now, that’s almost impossible. That’s why I’m moving more juniors into what used to be my men’s specialty department. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the men’s specialty department disappeared. If that’s where I need to go, I’ll adapt.

But despite the headaches and hassles, hurricanes, and partial deliveries, Morrow says his job is a lot of fun. After 40 years he’s still stoked: “The other day I sold twin brothers their first surfboards. They were 48 years old. That was the coolest thing I’ve done in a long time.

Hot Wax Surf Shop
Wilmington
9/16/03, 10:orrow. “I sold him his first board. He says he was nine or ten in this photo. His dad was stationed at Camp Lejeune. That’s Randy, his brother, who was old enough drive.

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The photo emphasizes the shop’s visual merchandising transformation from a typical dusty surf shop to today’s slick incarnation. AB Surf Shop moved to its current location in 1982 and the building received a major renovation in ’92. “I had a guy out of New York come down and do the whole inside. We tore down some old barns and used the wood to completely update the interior, says Morrow. The fixtures and lighting are about as good as any I’ve seen.

We head to the back office, which is shared by two dogs — Hannah and Cody — and Tommy’s two sons, Chuck and John. Despite the hurricane warnings the sons (who help run the family business) are busy writing orders. “We had to place these orders today to get all the discounts, says Donny. “Then we’ll go home, move our boats, and start putting up plywood on our houses.

Summer sales were good for the store. “It’s all due to young juniors and surf, says Morrow. “My men’s department is way off — as is most men’s retail business. In Charlotte — which is our better-men’s clothing market — the men’s apparel stores are in bad shape.

“Surfboard sales, however, are the best I’ve seen in years, he continues. “I’m doing unbelievably well with Surf Tech. I’m making 35 percent with them. I’ve never made that kind of money with surfboards. We stock between 250 to 300 of their boards.

Morrow echoes a common exclamation when talking about his board sales to women: “It’s unbelievable! I’ve never seen this much interest from girls. I’m as excited about juniors getting back in surf as I am about anything. They’re the best customers anybody can have. They’ll buy three or four 80-dollar swimsuits a year at full price.

Morrow recently hired Allison Burns as junior’s buyer manager. “She’s worked for me since she was fifteen, and she’s graduating from N.C. State this year with a degree in textiles. She loves fashion and retail.

We’re interrupted by the news that a mandatory evacuation is underway of Ocracoke Island, a small community about 70 miles to the northeast that’s only accessible by ferry boat. “So soon? is the general reaction.

Morrow says retailing in North Carolina takes a special touch. “The Southeast has always been traditional — preppy even, he says. “Plus, it’s not like California where one city limit line ends and another begins. Our county population is 60,000 in the wintertime. If only ten percent of that population is interested in surfing, that’s not many consumers to draw from.

Like at Marsh’s, the new school schedule has Morrow worried. “I can compete with anybody in the world at retailing, he says, suddenly dead serious. “But if no one is in town, I can’t sell anything. North Carolina is even considering a year-round schedule. That would be disastrous. Some say, ‘Well you’ll get vacationers all year.’ Who’d come to the beach in the winter when the water temp is 40 degrees?

However, after 40 years in the business, not much seems to rattle Morrow — even the shifting sands of product distribution. “We create the mystique and the demand, he says about his fellow specialty retailers. “Then the product goes to department stores. That’s why we’re always trying to find somebody new. Well, in the menswear business right now, that’s almost impossible. That’s why I’m moving more juniors into what used to be my men’s specialty department. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the men’s specialty department disappeared. If that’s where I need to go, I’ll adapt.

But despite the headaches and hassles, hurricanes, and partial deliveries, Morrow says his job is a lot of fun. After 40 years he’s still stoked: “The other day I sold twin brothers their first surfboards. They were 48 years old. That was the coolest thing I’ve done in a long time.

Hot Wax Surf Shop
Wilmington
9/16/03, 10:00 a.m.
The Weather Channel hurricane drumbeat is as loud as ever, but there’s a sense this morning that things are making a turn for the better. Overnight Isabel lost strength. Its sustained winds are now down to 115 mph as it spins 660 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras.

This is all fine with Hot Wax Surf Shop Manager Randy Howell. Now if the sideshore wind would just shift a bit.

Hotwax is located a few miles inland, adjacent to UNCW. The shop opened August 1, 1986, but moved into its current location five years ago. “We were actually down the street probably two miles, but the parking was tight, recalls Howell. “Parking’s a big thing in this town. It makes a big difference.

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The 6,000-square-foot store is on two floors, with a vast selection of surfboards lined around the edge of the second-floor loft. Apparel from Billabong, Quiksilver, Rusty, Rip Curl, Volcom, Hurley, and others is under the high ceilings of the lower floor.

The shop also has an extensive skate and shoe department. “Our skate department does fine — sales close down a little bit in the summer when it gets so hot and when you have the option of going to the beach, but come winter time it’ll kick back up. It helps smooth out the seasons.

Howell says that with a larger population to draw from, and with the University so close, sales never completely die off — but summer is the obvious boom time. “From spring break on, sales took off and never really let down, he says. “We probably sold more surfboards this year than ever before. More people are learning how to surf. The big sellers this year were longboards and foam boards. Just a ton of girls are getting the water. I do surf lessons and I probably instruct ten girls to every guy.

The shop carries a good selection of boards from WRV, Rusty, Natural Art, Becker, and more. “Rusty did very well this year, says Howell. “Their big-guy shortboard {the T2} sold great. We got fifteen of those in and three weeks later they were all gone.

Apparel sales were also healthy. “Quiksilver, Rusty, and Billabong are clearly our top three brands — Volcom does really well too, says Howell. “The girls business seems tougher. They’re always looking for a deal.

No surprise, Rainbow sandals sold through too. “I had these two racks just loaded, men’s on this side, ladies on this side, and we cleared it all out.

Even though there are several high-quality surf shops in the Wilmington area, Howell says the competition remains friendly. “I think we all have our niche, and if I don’t have an item, I have no problem sending them to another store. We’re all friends. We’re not trying to price gouge each other.

Sweetwater Surf Shop
Wrightsville Beach
9/16/03, 11:15 a.m.
Not every shop can boast of having a WCT-caliber surfer on staff, but when Chuck Bourgeois bought Sweetwater Surf Shop seven years ago, his son Ben also became part of the team. Ben and his sisters — Shana and Danielle — still work the sales floor when schedules allow, says Store Manager Tony Butler.

The shop, located down in the mix of Wrightsville Beach, is a short stroll to the beach (where the sideshores continue to blow). Butler says he too had a great summer. “It was the best summer we’ve had — ever, he laughs. “Sales were phenomenal! Lots of tourists came to town. We sold tons of sandals, T-shirts, and all that kind of stuff.

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“Board sales were also amazing, he continues. “We sold a ton of funboards. It caught us off guard. We were reordering every single week. It just goes to show you the popularity of the sport is growing. Everyone was buying boards, men, kids — but mostly a lot of women. That’s great. It will help cut down on the testosterone level in the water.

The waves significantly helped matters. “We had the most consistent surf this summer since 1995. It was rideable for 45 days straight, he says.

Sweetwater was also affected by the school schedule however, and the store is loo