Back Into The Game: Retailers Ready To Write Orders At Surf Expo

The Surf Expo trade show in Orlando, Florida is a good time, no doubt about it. There’s something about the Florida show that’s unpretentious and just a bit more focused on the actual buzz of surfing and not all the glitterati hype surrounding our industry.

But this year the Surf Expo show, held January 11¿13, also served as an important barometer of the health of the surf market in our post 9/11, post recession-pronouncement world. With sales during the final weeks of December reportedly strong, would retailers be in the mood to drop some paper?

The nearly universal answer was, “Yes.”

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“Overall it was a solid show,” says Quiksilver National Sales Manager Tom Holbrook. “The buyers had a positive outlook, many of them said they did pretty well for the total month of December, though they admitted the first half of the month was slow for the most part.

“If you really got into the details, the average account may have ended up with December sales slightly down or flat, but were happy with their overall business,” continues Holbrook. “And since most of them planned conservatively, or watched their inventory better, they actually were cleaner on inventory post-Christmas than they expected. We had more accounts than we expected that either wanted some of their spring orders moved up or had some more open-to-buy for AO at once. Everyone seemed to be more confident in their (conservative) plans, and their already-bought spring buys.”

Rob Willis, Billabong national sales manager, was equally exuberant: “We expected a good Expo and got a great one instead. Screw Bin Laden, this was one of the most upbeat and positive Expos ever!”

Lori Kisner, the VP of sports/retail for DMG World Media, the parent company of Surf Expo, was actually surprised by both the attendance and optimistic tenor on the floor. “The mood on the floor was amazingly optimistic,” she says. “America is definitely back. It was our best show ever, but we were actually a bit concerned going in.

“There were some major glitches with the company handling pre-registration for us,” continues Kisner. “In fact, just a week before the show we found 700 buyers who weren’t accounted for. Because of this snafu, we left for the show uncertain about how it would go. Wow! Let’s just say that we were overwhelmed by the energy and positive energy. It turned out that overall attendance was about even with last year, and last year was the best year ever. Some people might call that flat, but I call that a miracle!”

Kelly Gibson, O’Neill’s executive VP of sales, marketing, and merchandising, agrees that the overall mood of the show was very positive. “Most of the retailers I met with mentioned that they beat their revised Holiday plan and the outlook for 2002 is positive,” he says. “The overall vibe at Surf Expo was very encouraging.”

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From most accounts, the retailers who showed were eager to place orders. “A lot of retailers played it very conservatively for the last couple months of 2001 after the 9/11 tragedy,” says O’Neill Sportswear Marketing Director Rick Petri. “Now, with the end-of-the-year business being so much better than expected, they’re trying to play a little game of catch up with their inventory.”

Steve Pauls, Coowner of The Pit in Nags Heads, North Carolina is excited for spring. “We’re also excited about the people who we’re working with. We feel like we’ve partnered up with the right people. Our holiday was good. We were up over last year, and I really didn’t expect to see that.”

According to Ron Jon Senior Buyer John Sabo, inventory levels are better than expected. The worry now, he says, is demand for spring product might actually outstrip supply. “After September 11, a lot of manufacturers revised their production numbers in response to retailers ordering conservatively. Now there might be a bit of a rush to get that product.”

Kisner agrees, addiing “Many of the retailers we spoke with understood that product might be hard to find and that if they didn’t pre-book at the show they might not get any product at all.”

In many instances, this meant appointments were stacked deep and reps had little time to sit around.

It appears all the good feeling weren’t confined to the apparel market either. “The overall outlook seemed very positive,” says Globe VP of Marketing Kevin Flanagan. “We did great business there, and I saw a lot of important retailers. So it was good all the way around.”

“Sanuk worked more appointments 230 than any show we have ever attended,” says President Jeff Kelley. “This tells me the retailers who took the cautious route and held back after 9/11 are jumping back into the game. I was happy to see them so optimistic about the future. What pleased me the most was a step toward trying things that in the past they might have considered risky. The key to buying new categories is staying with them until the customer thinks of their location as a destination for these new products, and this sometimes takes commitment on the part of the retailer. Most I spoke with were ready for change and willing to start the process. After all, without change there’s no progress.”

According to Holbrook, “The Thursday pre-line day was the busiest yet. Our reps had more appointments than ever before.” He says that many buyers mentioned they appreciate the quieter working environment this day provides and were able to work with many of their key vendors. “That was another good sign,” says Holbrook.

“Business is not easy, but retailers are counting on the brands that have performed for them in the past to sell for them in each category for 2002,” he continues. “That’s why we’re pleased here at Quiksilver with both our retail selling performance for Holiday, as well as how our summer line bookings went at Expo. The accounts we spoke with at Expo told us our sell-through and our margins were higher than many brands overall. The buyers are being more calculating on where they spend their money — they can’t afford to gamble as much as they did in the past. But it’s up to us and the other key brands to continue to get them the best product we can that offers strong retail sell-through based on quality, image, and consumer confidence.”

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Volcom was yet-again mobbed during its product giveaways and appeared to be getting orders as well. “It was great to start off the new year in Florida,” says Volcom President Richard Woolcott. “The energy was motivating and positive. All the retailers I spent time with are excited about 2002. It should be a good year for our industry.”

And just which items had retailers dropping paper?

“The skate biz still seems strong, but the surf biz is still performing as well,” says Holbrook. “Retailers may be planning to order more walkshorts than last year, and are tighter when buying boardshorts overall than last year. But we’re confident in the category. Knits seem to be planned up and accounts are still selling polynosic wovens, but they also liked the new bigger and brighter plaids too. Denim jeans continue to sell — especially more of the treatment/washes models.

“Overall,” continues Holbrook, “it seems like retailers came to work at Expo and had a positive, yet realistic, vibe toward 2002 and our industry.”