Third Coast Surf Shop
Location(s): St. Joseph & New Buffalo, Michigan / Great Lakes
Owner/Mgr.: Owner Ryan Gerard Owner, Managers Cam Mammina & DeeDee Kampe
Number of storefronts: 2
Square footage: 1,500 each
Ryan Gerard grew up skating and snowboarding in South Bend, Indiana, during his youth, but it wasn’t until he found surfing on a local Lake Michigan beach in 1998 that everything began to click. Soon thereafter, Gerard moved to Santa Cruz, California, explicitly for the purpose of surfing, and over the next several years, learned the craft of board building at the Pearson Arrow factory.
Moving back to middle America, Gerard emerged with a degree from Northern Michigan University successfully in hand and a part-time job building boards for Great Lakes surfers. It was then that he took the next step and opened his very first retail space, Third Coast Surf Shop.
“After graduating and working construction, I borrowed some money and opened our first tiny shop in 2005,” recalls Gerard. “I chose New Buffalo, Michigan because it was centrally located in the Western Great Lakes region, close to my hometown, and has a bustling summer tourist trade. I met my (now) wife and started the business…and it's been full bore from then on.”
Over the past nine years, Third Coast has built itself into a destination for both locals and tourists alike, and expanded its buisness significantly, growing into a second, larger location that stays open year-round. We caught up with Gerard to hear the details behind the region, which brands he partners most closely with, and where he sees the business headed in the near future.
How would you describe your shop? What makes it unique? What do you think you're best known for?
We are a Great Lakes surf shop catering to the freshwater surfing tribe, our local community, and summer tourists. Surfing has taken over my life and I think that comes through in what we do here. It's a unique niche.
How many employees do you generally have at one time?
3 full time year-round, 20+ part and full time in high season, or summer months.
How do you recruit, train, and retain good employees?
That is probably the most difficult part of a very seasonal business like this, especially in a surf-starved region, but we have been very fortunate to have some good people over the years. Our two current managers are super solid, and our bookkeeper, Becky, keeps everybody in line.
What have been some key milestones in the shop's history since you opened?
The biggest has been buying a building and opening our second store in St. Joseph, which is now our main, year-round location (New Buffalo closes for the winter). It's definitely taken the biz to the next level.
Do you have an online storefront (e-commerce)?
Yes, we've been selling online at www.thirdcoastsurfshop.com since 2007. We have a brand new site (our fourth redesign) coming soon.
If so, what percentage of your business is online vs. Brick and Mortar?
10% online, and we're excited about growing that.
Do you operate a private label brand?
Are your private label sales a significant percentage of your business? If so, what percentage?
Yes, we have a good array of private label offerings; from skateboards, surfboards, and other hardgoods, to all types of softgoods. PL makes up about 15% of sales.
Describe your typical customer.
We have a very diverse customer base which includes core surfers and stand-up paddlers, local skate rats, families and other non-surfing locals, and tourists.
“Our shop wouldn't stick out in a bad way in Orange County or San Diego, with a good mix of hardgoods and softgoods directly related to surfing and the surfing life. That's important to me—no posers here.”—Ryan Gerard, Third Coast Surf Shop
Discuss your current product mix. How is it influenced by your region?
Our shop wouldn't stick out in a bad way in Orange County or San Diego, with a good mix of hardgoods and softgoods directly related to surfing and the surfing life. That's important to me—no posers here. It just so happens that we are in the middle of America, and we do get some fun waves from time to time.
What percentage of your inventory is dedicated to…
Hardgoods – 25%
Men's Apparel – 20%
Women's/Juniors Apparel – 20%
Footwear – 15%
Accessories – 20%
What brands have you carried the longest?
We still have many that we started with. Some that come to mind are Xcel wetsuits, Sector 9 Skateboards, Reef, Volcom, Hurley, and of course, 3rd Coast PL.
What are currently your three most profitable product categories?
Services – rentals and lessons
What has been your best selling brand over the past 6 months?
3rd Coast PL apparel.
What's your overall impression of the local market over the past year?
Steady, slow growth.
What are some things that brands are doing to help your business?
We get good support from key reps. I'm not sure many of the brands truly care about a little shop like ours, but good local (and non-local) reps do.
Are there any brands or programs that really stand out?
Patagonia is one of the most retail-friendly brands to work with; they have a great B2B site and excellent customer service.
What brand(s) has/have stood out as the best overall "partner" since you've been in business?
We've had good success with Xcel and Surftech SUP due to our relationship with our rep for those brands. Matt and Margaret Calvani, and the crew at Bing Surfboards, have also become good friends. They build our 3rd Coast PL surfboards.
How have you altered the way you buy over the past few seasons?
We're always comparing sales by category and adjusting our order volume as needed. Our business has been constantly changing In the past 4 years, we opened our St. Joseph location and moved our New Buffalo store twice, and we are always looking for the best mix of goods.
Are you altering the way you buy for next year?
Yes, as we do every year. Adjustments are based on previous and current season's sales, talking with the managers and employees, and doing our best to look ahead to what we think will work for next year.
Are there any profound trends that you're noticing right now in your region? Overall?
Being in the Midwest, people are generally a little slower on the intake of trends from either coast so we're able to see how the trends tend to play out in other places before we implement them in our shop. I travel to surf and see friends in California quite a bit, and make a point of visiting shops and doing some recon at the same time.
What are your expectations for your business over the next 6-12 months? 1-3 years?
Slow, steady, natural growth. People joke about us becoming the Ron Jon of the Midwest, and we have a lot of interest from various people and places wanting to see Third Coast Surf Shops all over the Great Lakes region, but that isn't going to happen. We may branch out a little more and continue to grow in different ways, but enjoying what we do while living a comfortable life and getting to travel a lot sounds good to me. Stressing over big business decisions for the next 30 years doesn't.
Where are you seeing the best margins?
We hold our best margins with our Third Coast Surf Shop branded apparel, softgoods in general, and accessories like sunglasses and jewelry.
What brands are consumers coming in and asking for the most?
For surf, our 3rd Coast Surfboards. In SUP, it would be Surftech. We don't have one apparel brand that specifically sticks out as more in demand than others overall, but Patagonia is our go-to for winter apparel. We also have had great luck with both TOMS and Vans footwear, and those are always in high demand.
What new brands are gaining traction for you?
We try to push niche brands that most people in the Midwest haven't heard of; for apparel, we've had a lot of customers starting to get into The Critical Slide Society. Stance has been on fire for some time and continue to grow. We've also done well with Migration Surfboards, which are hand-built by local lake surfer Tim Folkert.
Name the top three reps that service your store and what makes them special.
Mik DeBoef at Team Maxem. Mik is probably the most hands-on rep that we work with. He's an all-around great guy who's always down to help us out with any events we do and also carries some of our best-selling hardgood brands. He's been with us since the beginning and has become a close friend over the years.
Tom Crowe at Relative Ways. Tom has also been with us since the beginning and carries a few of our key brands such as TOMS, Hurley and Nixon. Tom and his team are always easy to get in touch with and are very helpful if any issues come up.
Bud Seyedin at Quiksilver. Bud hasn't been working with us for a long time but he's done a great job of helping us however he can.
What's one key lesson that you've learned through running this business?
I've learned to be grateful for what I have. We are pretty lucky to be involved in a business focused on what we love to do.
What is your top concern for your business and/or the industry as a whole right now?
One concerning trend is how inundated the SUP market has become with cheap, poor-quality boards. We refuse to sell any brands that we don't think are up to par and there's a lot of confusion with consumers about what to buy.
What makes you optimistic about your business and/or the industry right now?
We have a pretty unique niche here, and the market is still growing. That is reason for optimism.
What are the standout events that you host or programs that you run for consumers?
We have a huge end of summer Luau every year that has become one of the premier parties for the Great Lakes surfing community. Now 10 years in for us, it's been a great way to give back to our customers, friends, and the local community.
Do you expect your business to grow over the next year?
Are you currently considering expanding or opening a second location?
We are focused on being efficient, taking wise chances, and having fun. We always have our eyes peeled for good opportunities, too.
Last specific moment that really made you love your job?
Thinking about all the great people, from employees with us for years to customers who became best friends, the business has become my life, and vice versa. That's a good thing.