Eye On North Florida: The State Of Surf Retailing Along A1A

Nearly 500 years ago, the Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon inadvertently discovered a flat and swampy land during his quixotic quest for the Fountain Of Youth. He named it Pascua de Florida, or “feast of flowers.”

Today, schlepping down Orlando’s International Drive with the jaundiced eye of a trade-show warrior, it’s hard to find the romance that name conjures. Fortunately, though, Florida is much more than I-Drive or the cinder-block high rises that dot the Cocoa Beach skyline. It’s a surfing power center that’s nurtured world champions. It’s home for thousands of dedicated locals who stay stoked through long flat spells and know just which path through the mangroves will lead to that perfect peak. North Florida is also home to a diverse range of influential surf shops — each with its own distinct strategy for success.

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In late January TransWorld SURF Business visited seven of these shops found along the coast from Indialantic to Jacksonville. As always, we couldn’t visit every shop worthy of mention along this 200-mile stretch of coastline. We hope, however, that the following shops give you a rough guide to the state of retailing in North Florida, where surfing’s appeal has never been stronger.

The Groove Tube
Indialantic

Sometimes when you get a good idea — an idea so poignant it keeps you up at night — you’ve just gotta run with it. That’s what Dave Settgast has done since 1992, the year he opened The Groove Tube in Indialantic, Florida.

According to Settgast, the idea for an alternative surf/music shop hit him on his drive home from North Carolina. “I was a frustrated rep,” he says. “The stores in my territory were not open to anything new or different. It was like if it doesn’t say Quik, Billabong, or something like that, you’re pretty much going to have a tough time.” At the time, Settgast was a rep for Katin and Unitribe.

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He called his sister Diane Young, and the two of them drafted plans for a new shop — one that carried different lines and alternative music. “I was passionate about music, so I had the idea of a more progressive surf shop with music,” Settgast says.

In his music department, Settgast carries primarily indie labels and albums from underground bands. In the wake of big-box titans such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy hawking CDs on the cheap, The Groove Tube’s eclectic mix of hard-to-find music is what keeps its music business humming. “Stores like Best Buy that sell music as a loss leader have changed the face of the industry,” he says, “but I still sell a lot because I have a lot of stuff that they don’t have.”

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While there’s a strong crossover between his surf and music customers, Settgast says the two businesses — and industries — are different beasts. He doesn’t recommend that other shops dive in the music biz unless shop owners and employees are music savvy and committed. “Music requires a lot of knowledge. It’s very challenging,” he says. “If you don’t have the new Pennywise CD the day it comes out, you’re a schmuck. It’s relentless, and the profit margins are very small.”

The bite-size margins on albums are no matter to Settgast. If nothing else, offering music is a huge draw for The Groove Tube — especially for local customers, who account for the vast majority of sales. “We’re completely dependent on our locals,” he says. “The same customers come in week after week.” The Groove Tube was among the first shops in Florida to carry Volcom. It was also Paul Frank’s first Florida account.

For Settgast, the quality of a company’s rep is crucial to that brand’s success in the shop. He gives props to Circa’s Terry Crovo: “Whenever I ask him for anything, he’s there. I’m really hard on reps because I am one.”

While he carries an array of brands, Settgast says no label stands out sales-wise. Sales are spread fairly evenly, but music and footwear are The Groove Tube’s top categories.<[IMAGE 4]

If Settgast could be king for a day, he’d encourage companies to treat accounts with more respect. “A lot of companies don’t understand Florida at all. Florida’s a really difficult territory to work as a rep,” he says. “It’s really spread out, and there’re good stores that you can pretty much count on one or two hands. They {companies} always have super unrealistic expectations of this territory.”

Settgast does most of the buying for The Groove Tube, including music, hardgoods, men’s apparel, and accessories. His sister, Young, handles the juniors side of the biz. Combined they make for a powerful team. “We’re stuck,” quips Young when asked about working side by side with her brother. “We’re blood. What are you going to do? We love each other, but we don’t have to like each other.”

Natural Art
Cocoa Beach

When the surf’s up in Cocoa Beach (and that’s not too often) chances are you won’t find anyone inside Natural Art — not even the owner.

Deb Dooley, who runs Natural Art with her husband Pete, says that on the rare occasions the surf’s good in town, her surf-shop business comes to a screeching halt, so she just shuts down the shop. “If it’s slow this time of year during the week, I lock the door and go surf if it’s good. I put some wax on the window sill and put up a sign that says, ‘Here’s some wax,'” she says. “Because nobody’s really gonna come in. They’re gonna go surfing.”

That surf-first priority is one reason Natural Art has earned a reputation as a ‘core surf shop; its surf-centric product array is another. The shop carries predominantly Natural Art surfboards plus all the accessories that go with them, including leashes, fins, and grip from X-Trak, FCS, and OAM. There’s a good selection of videos, as well as an assortment of O’Neill wetsuits. Dooley has placed softgoods — with the exception of trunks — on the back burner.

“We’ve tried everything,” says Dooley about the shop’s product selection, adding that Natural Art has been in its current location since 1985. “Back in the 80s, when everything was booming, we did the full spectrum — women’s {products}, clothing — and it just sits. Hardgoods move, surfboards move, trinkets move — all that stuff moves.

“I offer the basics {in apparel}: baggies, T-shirts, and in the spring I offer girls’ little surf trunks,” she continues.

With a mere fraction of her time spent thinking about softgoods, Dooley is able to devote the majority of her energy to the central focus of the shop: surfboards. The shop doubles as the showroom for Natural Art surfboards, and Dooley keeps dozens of short- and longboards on hand (although when we came by the day after Surf Expo, the selection was light; most of the boards were at the show).

Pete is the primary shaper for Natural Art, but there are two other guys who also mow foam. Tougher EPA laws have made the Dooleys retool their surfboard-manufacturing biz, so now Natural Art sources out its glassing. “It works out good,” says Dooley. “Let somebody else hassle with it!”

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Surfboards are notorious for their lackluster margins, but without a middleman, Natural Art is able to pull slightly better-than-average profits on boards. “The margins are pretty good because the factory makes money, and then I make money,” says Dooley.

However, Natural Art still doesn’t make a killing from its surfboard sales. “Once the credit-card company’s got their money and you give them {customers} a fin or whatever, you make 40 to 80 bucks,” Dooley says.

While a major attraction, surfboards aren’t the shop’s only draw. About a third of the shop’s floorspace is reserved for the Cocoa Beach Surf Museum, which provides a history of East Coast surfing, complete with classic pictures and funky memorabilia. The museum is going on its third year, and Dooley says it helps bring in business. Plus, “It keeps people around longer.”

Running a surf shop on this stretch of coastline is competitive but friendly, Dooley says. “The Quiet Flight {Cocoa Beach shop} boys will send us people, and I’ll send them people,” she adds. “Some of the kids who work there are really good kids.”

Dooley says she’d love for the shop to be located on a boardwalk in New Jersey where there’d be more foot traffic and higher turnover. Even so, things are all right in South Cocoa Beach: “This shop has its niche, and it keeps chugging along. When the waves are good and the energy’s good ? that’s what it’s all about.”

Ron Jon
Cocoa Beach

The Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach is a destination unto itself — just ask the more than 2.4-million shoppers who cross its teal art deco threshold every year. From its hundreds of billboards doting the Florida turnpikes to the custom Ron Jon PT Cruiser propped at a jaunty angle outside, Ron Jon simply uses a metric different from most surf shops. What other surf shop is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year?

The Cocoa Beach store has its own waterfall and glass elevator, and a spectrum of products that range from high-end Channel Islands boards to the most “royale with cheese” tourist trinket fill its 52,000 square feet.

Debbie Harvey, director of merchandise buying, says business has been strong: “But you have to remember that we’re up against last year, which had a depressed tourist clientele because of the aftermath of 9/11. But my key is that week after Christmas, and we had very strong business then, and January was very, very good.”

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Harvey says Ron Jon’s Cocoa Beach surfboard business has been particularly strong. “We’re selling more boards than last year, which is telling me that more people are getting into the water,” says Harvey. “Our wetsuit business has also been good, which could be weather-related because it’s been cold here. But my boardshort business is also up double digits over last year, and so is my ladies’ swim business, which all tells me people are interested in the water lifestyle.”

Harvey says she’s been particularly impressed with a few brands’ boardshort lines. “I was pleased to see that Rusty had a really strong January with us,” says Harvey. “Their trunks are doing great. I thought their boardshort prints looked great going forward, too.”

At Ron Jon in Cocoa Beach, Harvey says the men’s apparel business is up, but that the women’s collections were up even more: “I’m continuing to see that shift of more business into the women’s area. It’s a continuation of a trend that we’ve seen for the last couple of years.

“I’m continuing to push my ladies business and look for more fashion and consistency there,” Harvey continues, “but in the men’s business, it’s all about whatever brand the kid wants. In ladies’, it’s different because they want the fashion looks, and they’ll switch brands more than in the men’s world. There’s enough product out there. The biggest issue is making sure there’s a good mix of key items and then newness.”

The only part of the business that’s been flat has been the skate department. “I’m not seeing the big decreases that I’ve heard about out in the market, but my business has flattened out,” says Harvey. “Last year we were tweaking more dollars away from other vendors to give to the skate vendors, now it’s pretty much flattened. I’m putting more money back into the surf vendors because that’s where the action seems to be right now. Two years from now, I may be telling you the opposite. We may be back more to that skate side of the equation.”

If anything, Harvey says the store needs more room (52,000 square feet just doesn’t cut it), so she could move all her men’s lines together on the main floor. Nor are the Ron Jon higher-ups content with their current three-store reach. Ron Jon will open a new store in Orlando in late April, and Harvey says they’re in the negotiation phase for a few more locations. If its past history is any itch of coastline is competitive but friendly, Dooley says. “The Quiet Flight {Cocoa Beach shop} boys will send us people, and I’ll send them people,” she adds. “Some of the kids who work there are really good kids.”

Dooley says she’d love for the shop to be located on a boardwalk in New Jersey where there’d be more foot traffic and higher turnover. Even so, things are all right in South Cocoa Beach: “This shop has its niche, and it keeps chugging along. When the waves are good and the energy’s good ? that’s what it’s all about.”

Ron Jon
Cocoa Beach

The Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach is a destination unto itself — just ask the more than 2.4-million shoppers who cross its teal art deco threshold every year. From its hundreds of billboards doting the Florida turnpikes to the custom Ron Jon PT Cruiser propped at a jaunty angle outside, Ron Jon simply uses a metric different from most surf shops. What other surf shop is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year?

The Cocoa Beach store has its own waterfall and glass elevator, and a spectrum of products that range from high-end Channel Islands boards to the most “royale with cheese” tourist trinket fill its 52,000 square feet.

Debbie Harvey, director of merchandise buying, says business has been strong: “But you have to remember that we’re up against last year, which had a depressed tourist clientele because of the aftermath of 9/11. But my key is that week after Christmas, and we had very strong business then, and January was very, very good.”

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Harvey says Ron Jon’s Cocoa Beach surfboard business has been particularly strong. “We’re selling more boards than last year, which is telling me that more people are getting into the water,” says Harvey. “Our wetsuit business has also been good, which could be weather-related because it’s been cold here. But my boardshort business is also up double digits over last year, and so is my ladies’ swim business, which all tells me people are interested in the water lifestyle.”

Harvey says she’s been particularly impressed with a few brands’ boardshort lines. “I was pleased to see that Rusty had a really strong January with us,” says Harvey. “Their trunks are doing great. I thought their boardshort prints looked great going forward, too.”

At Ron Jon in Cocoa Beach, Harvey says the men’s apparel business is up, but that the women’s collections were up even more: “I’m continuing to see that shift of more business into the women’s area. It’s a continuation of a trend that we’ve seen for the last couple of years.

“I’m continuing to push my ladies business and look for more fashion and consistency there,” Harvey continues, “but in the men’s business, it’s all about whatever brand the kid wants. In ladies’, it’s different because they want the fashion looks, and they’ll switch brands more than in the men’s world. There’s enough product out there. The biggest issue is making sure there’s a good mix of key items and then newness.”

The only part of the business that’s been flat has been the skate department. “I’m not seeing the big decreases that I’ve heard about out in the market, but my business has flattened out,” says Harvey. “Last year we were tweaking more dollars away from other vendors to give to the skate vendors, now it’s pretty much flattened. I’m putting more money back into the surf vendors because that’s where the action seems to be right now. Two years from now, I may be telling you the opposite. We may be back more to that skate side of the equation.”

If anything, Harvey says the store needs more room (52,000 square feet just doesn’t cut it), so she could move all her men’s lines together on the main floor. Nor are the Ron Jon higher-ups content with their current three-store reach. Ron Jon will open a new store in Orlando in late April, and Harvey says they’re in the negotiation phase for a few more locations. If its past history is any indication, we can expect these new Ron Jon stores to continue to expand the definition of what a surf shop is.

Quiet Flight
New Smyrna Beach

Turning away customers (and losing money) because you don’t have the right size or color of a product on hand is a frustrating retail reality. And it’s one drawback of business the folks at Quiet Flight are trying to avoid.

“Whatever you carry, you’ve gotta have a lot of it,” says Quiet Flight Manager Chris Davenport. “You don’t want to say, ‘We have it in a different color.'”

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Indeed, Quiet Flight has a grip of product on hand, particularly in its sunglass and watch departments. It enjoys a luxury that many competing shops don’t: it can tap into its warehouse for additional product, or it can get items from any of its seven other locations (which include a pair of Boardriders Clubs and an eyewear store). “If I don’t have it, chances are one of my other stores will have it, and I can get it in a day,” Davenport says.

Although the Quiet Flight group has several locations (including one at City Walk in Orlando) and strong buying power, the New Smyrna shop carries a mom-and-pop vibe. The hometown feel of the shop meshes well with New Smyrna’s quaint population of 20,000. The wooden floor that runs from the front to the back of the shop feels as if it came from a pier, and the vaulted ceiling gives a sense of airiness.

The small local population, coupled with tourist traffic, keeps Quiet Flight employees busy year-round. “Business is pretty steady. January and February are a little bit slow, but that’s about it,” says Davenport. “Before it’d be six months on from spring through summer until after Thanksgiving and then six months off. Now we stay steady for about nine or ten months.”

So what’s selling? Davenport says menswear has picked up — especially Volcom — and the shop has a strong juniors business. “Our bikinis are phenomenal when we get them,” he says. (Yeah, but how do they sell?)

Quiet Flight is also a well-known surfboard label, and with the recent addition of Damien Hobgood to the team, the Quiet Flight name could become as ubiquitous as a Rusty or Channel Islands. “I don’t think it’s known that well {that Damien is now riding for Quiet Flight}, we’re just waiting for the ads to come out,” says Davenport. “But 75 percent of the boards we’ve sold have been Damien boards. Every time we get them in, we sell them out.” As it already stands, the New Smyrna store moves a ton of surfboards.

To complement its board sales, the shop sells a fair amount of Rip Curl, Quiksilver, and O’Neill wetsuits. Plus Davenport reports the colder water and weather have made rubber sales this year even better.

On the apparel side of the biz, Davenport says vintage-look denim has been particularly hot. “Kids are stoked on the old scruffed-up stuff,” he says, adding that trucker hats and big sunglasses have also been popular. “I’m surprised how the kids took to that whole fashion.”

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What’s popular with Quiet Flight’s local customers has a lot to do with what they see in the media, Davenport says, but the success of a label in the shop has everything to do with its rep and how easy the brand is to work with. Davenport notes Billabong and Volcom are the easiest companies to work with, and touts Quiksilver’s Kenny Kozak and Circa’s Terry Crovo as being great reps. “They do their job,” he says. “The better ones will RA it and get it out of your store. It doesn’t do them any good if it’s just sitting here or if it’s on sale.”

In spite of the soft economy, Davenport says Quiet Flight’s business is healthy. “We’ve done nothing but grow,” he says. “I can’t complain at all. Every year we get a good increase.”

Aqua East
St. Augustine Beach

St. Augustine was founded in 1565, 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown and 55 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. This gives the qu