30/30: Chicago’s Windward Boardshop

1
Owners and former owner, left to right: Tony Anasenes, Chris Currier, Jackie Butzen, and Jess Bell

In September 2010, Chicago natives Chris Currier, Tony Anasenes, and Jess Bell purchased Windward Sports— a Chicago staple since 1982—and re-branded it Windward Boardshop to speak directly to their core market.  After three weeks of remodeling, Windward was back open for business with a focus on customer service and one of the more diverse product offerings we have seen in our 30 shops in 30 days feature.  Take a read, as Windward’s owners lend some insight on the Chicago scene and how they supply riders in three separate industries.

Where in Chicago are you located?
Tony Anasenes: We are at 3317 North Clark on the north side of Chicago, just south of Wrigley Field. About three and a half miles north of downtown.

How did the shop get its start? Who was involved?
Chris Currier: The shop was originally opened in 1982 by Jackie [Butzen] and Lester [Zalewski]. We have all been customers since we were kids. In early 2009 we heard they were thinking of selling. We wanted the shop to stay in Chicago as it is the city’s original boardshop. At the end of September 2010 we finalized the purchase and took over the shop.

How many people do you have workin’ at the shop?
TA: Right now we have us three partners, two full-time and one part-time employee.

Tell us a bit about the skate and snow scenes in Chicago.
CC: The Chicago-area scene is a close-knit group that have a deep appreciation for the sport. Downside of the snow scene is the lack of mountains. The upside of this problem is the people who are into snowboarding are extremely dedicated. I grew up walking up and down a local hill, day and night, to hit one jump or rail. The skate scene has transformed over the past fifteen years. It started with small groups of kids getting chased around by the cops. Now we’ve seen the city and surrounding suburbs put money into building public skate parks.

TA: We also have a mini-ramp and mini-park in the basement and look to open that up to the public this fall to give local riders somewhere to skate in the bitter-cold winter.

You also carry surf brands.  Do you mostly do windsurfing business or do you carry traditional surf boards as well?
TA: The west coast of Lake Michigan here doesn’t really have much surf to get out on a traditional surf board with. That said, there is decent surf on the east coast side of the lake in Michigan, so when we get people in looking for surf we point them that direction. Our new focus is on SUP (Stand Up Paddle). The SUP scene has blown up over the past few years as the lake, rivers and lagoons around here are perfect to get out on the water with friends or for race training/workout sessions.

Is there still a sizable windsurfing community in the Chicago area?
CC: There still is a decent community of people who have been doing it for a long time, but it is not as large as it was in the 80s and 90s.

Chicago can have some tough weather. How much does the weather influence how busy the shop is and what product is moving?
Jess Bell: Weather absolutely has an impact, but when you live here, you basically deal with it. Granted, when there is two feet of snow on the ground you’re not going to have much foot traffic.  But when that big storm hit us in February, our snowboard business came back to life. Plus we do everything year-round, so we will have people coming in December looking for boardshorts and swimwear.  Also when it is ten below, a down jacket is a pretty good purchase for people just walking around the city.

Do you have a team?
CC: We are currently working on putting together both a skate and snow team. Hopefully we’ll have these set up by the fall.

How will you go about selecting riders for the team?
TA: Skill, dedication and attitude. Not necessarily in that order. You can be the best rider in the area, but if you’re a total dick then we don’t want you on the team.

JB: We look for kids that are truly excited about that sport and will progress because they love doing it. We have a few kids on the horizon that will be skating for us and look forward to putting something together for our winter crew as well.

What brands/ products move best at the shop?
CC: Never Summer, Volcom, Burton, and Vans are a few of our top brands. The store is known for carrying swimsuits year around. Even during the cold Chicago winters we sell a lot of swimwear to people who are heading on vacations.

JB: It will never cease to amaze me how in February in Chicago I might sell eight womens’ bikinis in one day. Skate has come back to life at the shop as well. We re-dedicated much more space to skate than it was given in recent years – so it feels good to see it pick up. We also have witnessed the longboard phenomenon. Can’t keep them on the shelf, even during the winter.

The retail world has been tough of late, what has helped keep the ball rolling for you guys?
CC: After purchasing the store we closed down for three weeks to remodel. This helped breathe new life into the store and get people excited about checking it out. Our online store was recently launched and is still a work in progress that will help the store grow. Events are another main focus. Something as simple as a shopping night with a DJ and drinks gets people in the store and everyone in the community together.

JB: One major push was to bring back really excellent customer service. I don’t care what anyone says, the days of being a really intimidating asshole shop are over. People need to be treated well now or they will buy on the internet. I would rather be nice to my customers, get the sale, and have the comfort of knowing that kid just purchased the right product. That keeps the customers coming back every time.

Any innovative brand or market strategies?
TA: One major part of taking over the store included a complete re-branding of the existing store. The store used to be called “Windward Sports” so we dropped the “Sports” for “Boardshop” to speak directly to our core market. Along with that we dropped the rollerblades to bring more boardsport specific products in. I don’t think we want to give all our secrets away, but our focus right now is growing our new brand in the local scene. Offline that means events, demos, and other promotions. Online, we are going to be rolling out some cool stuff over the next few months on our blog and other social channels. The growing mobile market has some cool stuff with Geo-targeting and social features we are experimenting with also.

How much business do you do online?  How important do you feel an online presence is?
CC: The online store was just launched about a month ago. It is an extremely small part of our business currently, but we feel the presence is important. Even if someone does not purchase through the site it allows them to get a better idea of what we carry. Many people will look online then come in to discuss a few different options with our employees.

What’s the competition like in the area?  Are there a lot of core shops or any big mall stores?
TA: The core shop competition around the city is limited to just a few OG players. Burton Flagship for snow/skate, Shred Shop for snow/skate, Uprise for skate and Viking Ski/Snowboard. We have serious respect for the players that have been in the scene for years now and look forward to working with them to grow the scene even larger.

What’s your take on the relationship between distributors/brands and retailers and  how they can work together to keep core shops in business and compete with the mall shops?
JB: Number one, you have to have a good rep. There are a lot of great reps out there, they help you stay on top of what’s coming up, monitor your buys and check up on sell through, and help you keep the product moving. And when it comes to competition, brands have to figure out who they want to support and support them. If you are going to sell to Zumiez, you better have the man power to support that size account so your other dealers don’t get overlooked.

CC: The brands have to be willing to work with core shops in ways they won’t with mall shops. This includes having products that can only be sold in core shops and working with credit terms to be more flexible. The other way is putting marketing dollars behind hosting store events such as having teams host autograph sessions.

How do you balance and pick brands for three separate industries?
CC: As seasons change, our focus changes between the three sports also. In each sport we have our staple big brands that we carry. We then try to add a few up-and-coming brands for each segment. The store always makes an effort to support local Chicago brands such as Character, Wellborn, and Affiliate.

Any big plans or last words?
CC: Windward is about growing  and giving back to the sports that have given each of us so much over the past fifteen years. We hope to have the store in the city for another thirty years.

TA: Watch out for some fun stuff with our resident mascot “Charles.” Learn more about him on our website. Yea, we’re all kinda lame with stuff like that sometimes but we have fun with it.