For Girls Only: women’s surf shops are here to stay

Any misgivings Mary Hartman had about establishing one of the first girls-only ‘core surf shops in existence were laid to rest after receiving a call from the concierge of a nearby resort hotel, warning that a VIP was on the way to her Dana Point, California, store, Girl In The Curl.

“Mick Jagger was in my store for 45 minutes with his daughter, his nanny, and a bodyguard standing outside the door,” recalls Hartman about the encounter. “It was all about his daughter, and he spent 500 dollars on her. He bought a sarong for himself. I asked him if he would wear it onstage ? he said it would fall off.”

Hartman says she’s not starstruck, but when Jagger walks into your store, you tend to notice. Not that she or any of the dozen or so surf shops catering exclusively to women need a rock legend’s patronage to validate their foray into the male-dominated world of surf retail, but it makes for good story.

Of the 2.26-million surfers in 2002, a solid 25 percent of those were female, compared with sixteen percent just two years prior, according to action-sports research firm Board-Trac. From 1999 to 2002 the number of females surfing regularly rose 280 percent, while the total number of surfers globally actually declined due to economic and political factors such as 9/11, according to the firm. Based on the numbers, the emergence of ‘core surf shops owned by women for women is a simple lesson in supply and demand.

“The surf industry has acknowledged that women exist and have an impact,” says Maria Case, Board-Trac partner and managing director. “It gained steam with Roxy, which was really the seminal women’s brand. Because they’re Quiksilver, Roxy was able to secure more retail real estate and became one of the triggers that opened up the gates for girls in this industry.”

With or without Roxy, women’s emerging role in surf-retail ownership was inevitable. “Title IX {the 1972 amendment to the federal Civil Rights Act barring sexual discrimination in education, including sports} gave girls the freedom to participate in traditional male-dominated sports — including surfing,” adds Case. “Women have the confidence today to do things that were less acceptable or unheard of in the past, like surfing and opening surf shops.”

The girls-only surf shop trend began on April 6, 1996, when Ilona Wood-Anderle opened WaterGirl in Encinitas, California. Wood-Anderle says WaterGirl was a result of the desire to own her own business while keeping an eye on her young daughter as much as to capitalize on surfing’s burgeoning popularity with women. Thanks to timing and much preopening publicity, WaterGirl was an instant success.

“Roxy came out soon before I opened, and I saw the surfing business as a whole on the rise,” recalls Wood-Anderle, who today runs WaterGirl Original accessories and plans to open a series of WaterGirl retail outlets in the next two years. (She no longer has her WaterGirl shop in Encinitas.) “People thought I was crazy. One guy told me not to bother with a cash register because it would be so slow. I didn’t even tell my family about it at first. But I realized that the real market was not the hardcore male surfer, because they don’t buy clothes and usually order boards from a shaper. The real customer was one who loves the ocean and identifies with the culture.”

Wood-Anderle needed her cash register to ring up the 8,000 dollars in sales she did on opening day. Being the first of its kind, WaterGirl received phenomenal press coverage, but its success didn’t come automatically. Wood-Anderle utilized an aggressive publicity campaign, published a WaterGirl newsletter, became an advocate on controversial issues (including a well-publicized battle with a clothing company that used anti-girl slogans), started a surf team of local schoolgirls, and operated a modest surf school to nurture present and future clients. “When you get involved in the community, they feel an attachment to you, and they’ll pronize your store,” Wood-Anderle says.

Besides catering to an ever-increasing demographic, women’s surf shops provide moral support and a welcome sanctuary for those who have felt intimidated by the confines of the traditional male-run surf shop. Trying on a wetsuit or asking a guy questions about surfboards often was an uncomfortable — even humiliating — experience.

“A lot of women still don’t feel comfortable going into a surf shop where there’s a guy behind the counter and the woman wants to try on a wetsuit,” explains “Saltwater” Sally Smith of Paradise Surf Shop in Santa Cruz. “We want them to feel comfortable enough to ask questions about surfboards, wetsuits, and other gear. In our book, no question is a stupid question. Our women clientele are stoked to come in and get input from women surfers.”

“Women’s shops tend to be more helpful and welcoming, especially to surfers just starting out,” adds Sunshine Makarow, publisher of Surf Life For Women. “They are more friendly and more willing to explain the basics.”

Although girls-only surf shops are a relatively new phenomena, their business models complement the overall trend in surf retail to diversify. While yesterday’s ‘core shops peddled little more than boards, wetsuits, wax, and some trunks, most of today’s successful stores devote the majority of their real estate to softgoods and lifestyle items, such as art, music, and other novelty items in addition to hardgoods.

Women’s surf shops are no different. In fact, they accentuate that hybrid model by offering an even mix of unisex hardgoods such as boards and leashes, along with softgoods and accessories. In the process they take full advantage of the difference in buying habits between men and their female counterparts, the dominant shopper of the species.

“When women shop they like to experience the whole process, and they like to shop in groups,” says Caroline “Coco” Tihanyi, co-owner of Surf Diva in La Jolla, California. “Guys like to be on a mission and buy what they need — they put blinders on when shopping and don’t want to deviate from their mission. Girls, on the other hand, are much more spontaneous. When they see something they like, not necessarily need, they’ll go for it.”

Tihanyi says Surf Diva features boutique items to add a different flair to its selection. “We carry our own line of clothes, as well as Sugar shoes, Triple 5 Soul, and Soda Sunglasses,” she says. “I think it’s important to bring in fun and interesting elements, but in the end to always stick with the real surf brands.”

Tory Strange of Girl Next Door in St. Augustine, Florida considers his store a “pro shop for girls who surf,” rather than a boutique with some surfboards thrown in. “The girls behind the counter love surfing and like to talk surf,” explains Strange. “Although we have nice clothing, it’s not a foo-foo shop. Our swimsuits are functional for surfing, which sets us apart from a boutique swimwear store. And our women customers know there won’t be a jock behind the counter waiting to pick them up.”

As expected, girls’ surf shops generally have the upper hand in women’s softgoods selection compared to guy shops, with more space devoted to the full range of women sizes. “We look at women of all ages and try not to pigeonhole them into junior sizes,” says Robin Holton of Aloha Paradise in Jacksonville, Florida. “My friends who surf and skate have pretty good builds. We’ll also stock for the little girl who’s a size zero or one, right up through XL and 2XL. We cater from little girls to grandmas.” After walking her clients through the fitting process, Holton enters each customer’s name and buying habits into a database for future reference.

Men’s clothing accounts for about zero to twenty percent of softgoods inventory in the typical women’s shop, which reflects the percentage of their male customers. With few exceptions, men are gift-shopping for female family and friends — gift certificates are plentiful. However, Hartman says she sold a surfboard to a male customer on her first day in business.

From a corporate standpoint, women’s surf shops provide a captive audience for women’s brands. “With more floor and wall space, we are not only able to feature a broader representation of our line but can also have a strong visual impact with more P.O.P. and light-box imagery to help tell the story of our brand,” says Candy Harris, Billabong Girls brand manager. “Whether it’s a stand-alone store or a shop that’s created a designated juniors’ department, any retailer who makes a point to hire a well-informed, style-conscious sales staff and creates a comfortable environment for girls has a better chance at attracting female consumers.”

According to Roxy’s VP Of Sales Deanna Jackson, women’s only stores can be a more girl-friendly place to shop, and the environment can be more inviting. “The juniors’ business changes so fast that when the focus is placed on women’s, there can be more attention to detail and a quicker reaction to the trends in the marketplace,” she says. “The juniors’ customer is very savvy and knows what she wants and it’s important to stay one step ahead of her and show her newness and innovation in product.”

Roxy now operates five of its own stores — although it concentrates mainly on softgoods rather than boards and leashes. “They are run the same way we run the Roxy section of our Boardriders Clubs, but blown out for an entire store and with fuller lines,” says Kerri Johnson, marketing manager for Quiksilver’s retail division. Johnson says the stores feature larger color ranges and more diverse product, with different cuts and sizing. “Women tend to shop more often and expect new products more frequently,” Johnson explains.

Even though the industry seems to be backing the women’s movement by offering more juniors’ lines, it hasn’t always been easy for women’s surf shops to secure the right product. Several store owners say they have experienced some corporate discrimination, even from the seminal Roxy brand. It was only after Hartman of Girl In The Curl sent a personal “love letter” to Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight along with a petition signed by 4,000 girls that she was able to get Roxy’s attention. “My surf team was in the finals of Roxy-sponsored contests and they still weren’t selling to me,” Hartman recalls. “When they finally opened up, I got this huge credit application in the mail, nine pages or something. It was like, do you want a blood sample, too? But when it finally happened, Roxy brought me to a new tax bracket, and the business took off.”

However, not all shops have been able to lock down new vendors. Holton says she tried in vain for four years to get Roxy into Aloha Paradise. “I made phone calls, left my card at trade shows, even had my husband try, but it didn’t matter. When people ask for Roxy now I tell them to go to the mall. I picked up lines from Lost and Hurley. It took me a year to get Reef. I think there was some discrimination out there from the corporate world, like, ‘Who’s this chick who wants to carry our line?'”

But the reason some brands choose to not open new doors is not necessarily based on who wants to carry a line. Jackson says brands like Roxy must consider other factors, including market saturation. “Distribution decisions are probably the most sensitive and most difficult to make,” she says. “Our strategy is a slow-managed growth plan by building our business within each retailer we are currently in. We do not want to oversaturate the market in any region. The juniors’ business can be so volatile it’s important to have a long-term vision.”

Paradise’s Sally Smith said getting product in the store is one of the biggest challenges facing women retailers. “We had a lot of vendors who didn’t think we’d make it, and also the neighboring shops would block us from getting the top brands,” says Smith. “Now we’re doing prettycertificates are plentiful. However, Hartman says she sold a surfboard to a male customer on her first day in business.

From a corporate standpoint, women’s surf shops provide a captive audience for women’s brands. “With more floor and wall space, we are not only able to feature a broader representation of our line but can also have a strong visual impact with more P.O.P. and light-box imagery to help tell the story of our brand,” says Candy Harris, Billabong Girls brand manager. “Whether it’s a stand-alone store or a shop that’s created a designated juniors’ department, any retailer who makes a point to hire a well-informed, style-conscious sales staff and creates a comfortable environment for girls has a better chance at attracting female consumers.”

According to Roxy’s VP Of Sales Deanna Jackson, women’s only stores can be a more girl-friendly place to shop, and the environment can be more inviting. “The juniors’ business changes so fast that when the focus is placed on women’s, there can be more attention to detail and a quicker reaction to the trends in the marketplace,” she says. “The juniors’ customer is very savvy and knows what she wants and it’s important to stay one step ahead of her and show her newness and innovation in product.”

Roxy now operates five of its own stores — although it concentrates mainly on softgoods rather than boards and leashes. “They are run the same way we run the Roxy section of our Boardriders Clubs, but blown out for an entire store and with fuller lines,” says Kerri Johnson, marketing manager for Quiksilver’s retail division. Johnson says the stores feature larger color ranges and more diverse product, with different cuts and sizing. “Women tend to shop more often and expect new products more frequently,” Johnson explains.

Even though the industry seems to be backing the women’s movement by offering more juniors’ lines, it hasn’t always been easy for women’s surf shops to secure the right product. Several store owners say they have experienced some corporate discrimination, even from the seminal Roxy brand. It was only after Hartman of Girl In The Curl sent a personal “love letter” to Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight along with a petition signed by 4,000 girls that she was able to get Roxy’s attention. “My surf team was in the finals of Roxy-sponsored contests and they still weren’t selling to me,” Hartman recalls. “When they finally opened up, I got this huge credit application in the mail, nine pages or something. It was like, do you want a blood sample, too? But when it finally happened, Roxy brought me to a new tax bracket, and the business took off.”

However, not all shops have been able to lock down new vendors. Holton says she tried in vain for four years to get Roxy into Aloha Paradise. “I made phone calls, left my card at trade shows, even had my husband try, but it didn’t matter. When people ask for Roxy now I tell them to go to the mall. I picked up lines from Lost and Hurley. It took me a year to get Reef. I think there was some discrimination out there from the corporate world, like, ‘Who’s this chick who wants to carry our line?'”

But the reason some brands choose to not open new doors is not necessarily based on who wants to carry a line. Jackson says brands like Roxy must consider other factors, including market saturation. “Distribution decisions are probably the most sensitive and most difficult to make,” she says. “Our strategy is a slow-managed growth plan by building our business within each retailer we are currently in. We do not want to oversaturate the market in any region. The juniors’ business can be so volatile it’s important to have a long-term vision.”

Paradise’s Sally Smith said getting product in the store is one of the biggest challenges facing women retailers. “We had a lot of vendors who didn’t think we’d make it, and also the neighboring shops would block us from getting the top brands,” says Smith. “Now we’re doing pretty well with getting whatever products we need.”

The success of WaterGirl prompted a run of girls’ ‘core surf shops, several of them short-lived, due mainly to mismanagement rather than market saturation. “A lot of women-only shops that closed focused too much attention on the clothing aspect of retail and not enough on being a real surf shop with surf equipment and staff that can speak knowledgeably about surfboards and surfing,” says Smith. “The shops that are still open are ‘core women-owned businesses, with women surfers running the show who can sell a board as easily as sunscreen with a tint in it to even out your skin tone.”

Terry Kraszewski of Ocean Girl in La Jolla says the sagging economy and competition from department stores also are major obstacles. “A lot of the department stores have recognized the surf trend as fashion and now stock most major surf brands. It’s hard to compete with that buying power.”

As the number of women surfers rise, so will the niche stores catering to them. The survivors will owe their success not to novelty, but to the old-fashioned tenants of retail: customer service, creative merchandising, savvy marketing, and cold, hard business sense. “Most women are more emotional than men, and that can be a negative when it comes to hardcore business,” advises Wood-Anderle, the pioneer.

On the other hand, a little emotion can go a long way when it falls into the category of customer service. “It’s like a sisterhood here,” says Hartman. “We had a couch and pillow that girls would grab and cry on when they broke up with their boyfriends or had fights with their husbands. It’s a safe haven.”etty well with getting whatever products we need.”

The success of WaterGirl prompted a run of girls’ ‘core surf shops, several of them short-lived, due mainly to mismanagement rather than market saturation. “A lot of women-only shops that closed focused too much attention on the clothing aspect of retail and not enough on being a real surf shop with surf equipment and staff that can speak knowledgeably about surfboards and surfing,” says Smith. “The shops that are still open are ‘core women-owned businesses, with women surfers running the show who can sell a board as easily as sunscreen with a tint in it to even out your skin tone.”

Terry Kraszewski of Ocean Girl in La Jolla says the sagging economy and competition from department stores also are major obstacles. “A lot of the department stores have recognized the surf trend as fashion and now stock most major surf brands. It’s hard to compete with that buying power.”

As the number of women surfers rise, so will the niche stores catering to them. The survivors will owe their success not to novelty, but to the old-fashioned tenants of retail: customer service, creative merchandising, savvy marketing, and cold, hard business sense. “Most women are more emotional than men, and that can be a negative when it comes to hardcore business,” advises Wood-Anderle, the pioneer.

On the other hand, a little emotion can go a long way when it falls into the category of customer service. “It’s like a sisterhood here,” says Hartman. “We had a couch and pillow that girls would grab and cry on when they broke up with their boyfriends or had fights with their husbands. It’s a safe haven.”