Surf Retailers Dive Back In To The Swim Market

Swimsuits are hot right now at surf shops around the country. They may take a lot of effort to display correctly and it can be a hassle maintaining orders, but in the last year specialty retailers experienced swimsuits sales increases of as much as 100 percent.

“Everyone wants a piece of the surf lifestyle, said Erika Johnson, general manager of South Coast Wahines, whose swimsuit sales doubled from 2002 to this year. Johnson noted mainstream media exposure of the sport from the blockbuster hit Blue Crush to WB’s Boarding House: North Shore and MTV’s Surf Girls as the primary reason behind the sales increase. One of surfing’s original icons–a girl in a bikini with a surfboard–is now on video games, in credit-card commercials, and on fashion runways from Europe to New York.

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In a Boston Globe article published last August, Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group, Inc., which tracks retail trends, said, “Surfwear is the one fashion trend bringing newness to the wardrobe. Jeans are hot, but they’ve been hot for a few years. The surf look is creating the need to buy something new.

The media saturation has introduced a wealth of new customers to the sport and its fashion. Surf brands are cashing in on the opportunity by becoming extremely fashion forward and competing with high-end brands. They’re now offering suits that are not only trendy and sexy, but extremely functional and affordable as well.

Throughout the mid to late 90s, that wasn’t the case. Boutiques and bathing-suit specialty stores like Diane’s were offering trendy suits in such a variety that surf shops couldn’t compete, says Roxy’s VP of Swimwear Design Leslie Tobia.

Plus, many surf shops were hesitant to sell women’s swimsuits because most brands only carried sets. “It was difficult at times because most women don’t {always} have a proportionate top and bottom, says Aaron Chang Sales Manager Brendan Hayes. “They would secretly switch a medium top with a small top and leave the store with the opposite. He added that many store staffers weren’t properly trained on handling and displaying suits as well.

Additionally, the fit of many surf brand suits weren’t appropriate for the average customer. “Five years ago, I couldn’t have worn a Roxy bathing suit, and now I own four or five of them, said Aubrey Jarvis of Quiet Flight Surf Shop in New Smyrna, Florida, where sales doubled last year. Roxy was one of the most popular brands she sold.

“Surf shops have realized that swimwear is a really strong business and there’re a ton of girls who buy more than one suit a year, says Tobia, adding that the average customer buys two to three suits a year.

The average customer has also changed. The increased focus on the juniors’ market has helped increase swimwear sales as well. “A girl can now go into a shop with her boyfriend, and they can both buy stuff, says Tobia. While Blue Crush and surf shows helped bring a lot more girls into the water in the last two years, Johnson at South Coast Wahine says only 25 percent of her customers are surfers–the rest just want a functional and cute bikini.

“People come from the Midwest, and they have to see a real surf shop, says Erin McDaniel, juniors’ buyer and head merchandiser for Huntington Surf & Sport, whose swimsuit sales also doubled last year.

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Surf companies are capitalizing on the popularity of the sport and are competing with brands outside the industry like J-Crew, Old Navy, and Victoria’s Secret. At Roxy, National Sales Manager Of Swimwear Sales Maria Barnes, says swimwear was always looked at as a fashion layer to sportswear. “I don’t think we took swimwear that seriously, she says. “There’s been a shift in attitude in the manufacturing of suits. Within Roxy, we’re making groovy-looking suits, but they didn’t fit. Roxy switched production under the guidance of Raisins and now Barnes says they make swimsuits that fit all sizes.

At Aaron Chang, Hayes says they starrted selling separates as well as sets because the demand was so high. It’s a lot more work–shops have to keep track of tops and bottoms and replenish them often–but Hayes said it’s been well worth it. In the last year, their orders increased by at least 35 percent. Hayes adds that Aaron Chang reps are trained to help specialty shops keep up with orders and display suits properly.

Many surf shops credit the increases in swimsuit sales to the fact that surf companies are becoming more fashion savvy in their swimwear lines. Right now, halter tops and low-rise bottoms are the major hits at surf shops like Hansen’s, Jack’s, HSS, SC Wahines as well as with major swim brands like Roxy, L*Space, Aaron Chang, Billabong, and Lucy Love.

Tom McNeel, owner of L*Space, whose company increased its orders by 100 percent in the last year, says his company helped lead the charge in making a low-cut suit. “Now, everybody’s cutting their suits like L*Space, he says. McNeel thinks the change to low-cut swim bottoms stemmed from low-rise jeans. “Sensuality is in, and it’s more sexy to wear low-rise jeans, so straight across the industry, there’s been a change in consciousness in how we cut our suits, he says.

Seventies styles are also hot right now, according to National Sales Director Randy Stager of Lucy Love, whose orders increased by 300 percent in their second year of business doing swimwear. Lucy Love’s most popular swimsuit bottom is the low-cut 70s-style bottom with stitching around the waistband. Other fashion trends that are hot right now are stripes, polka dots, browns, pinks, logos, thick ties, and wrap-style tops according to Jarvis at Quiet Flight Surf Shop.

Besides the competitive fashion trends that surf brands are bringing to specialty retailers, most swim brands offer bathing suits that are affordable compared to many bathing suit boutiques. A moderately priced bathing suit at SC Wahines retails at 65 to 70 dollars, which is about ten dollars less then at a specialty boutique. Aaron Chang even offers a reversible suit, which has been successful because customers feel like they’re getting a two-for-one deal.

If customers want higher-end suits, some of the Brazilian companies like Salinas and Vix retail swimsuits around 100 dollars and up, which are now available at surf shops as well. According to Hansen’s Surf Shop Swimwear Buyer Julie King, “Brazilian suits like Salinas and Vix have been really popular this year and have added some freshness to the swimwear department. She says the Brazilian suits are one of the biggest reasons Hansen’s–who has always been a major swimwear supplier in Encinitas, California–swimwear sales increased by more than 35 percent last year.

Even though the industry is booming, not all surf shops carry swimsuits. ‘Core shops like Encinitas Surfboards don’t have them at all, and during winter months, shops like Jack’s, SC Wahines, Rusty, and Mitch’s have very few in stock. At Becker Surf & Sport, buyer Carol Nielsen says swimsuits aren’t their strongest point in-store. “Our strongest points are boardshorts, rashguards, and wetsuits, she says. On their online store, however, bathing suit sales recorded a record gross last year.

If surf shops carry a wide variety of fits and styles, maintain their orders, and display their swimsuits properly, those tiny pieces of fabric will cover a lot more than just skin–they might just cover the bottom line as well.