Mail Order Vs. Retail

It’s no secret the skateboard industry has boomed. The influx of dollars has spawned the blossoming of retailers everywhere. Small towns that never had a skate shop suddenly have one. And cities that had only one retail shop now have several, often too close for comfort.

Competition is fierce. Many shops sell from their Web sites, and some offer a mail-order service. There are even retailers found only on the Web, and then there’s CCS-whose millions of mail-order catalogs, for better or for worse, stir up shop owners all over the country.

So who’s in position to reap the benefits from skateboarding’s growth? Is this competition the beginning of a new downfall, or is it giving skateboarding a sturdier foundation?

In skateboarding’s earlier days, mail order was one of the only options for kids who didn’t have a shop in their town. “Mail order used to be important way back. Skate shops didn’t exist in most cities,” says Duane Brown, manager of Freestyle, a retail shop in Charlottesville, Virginia. Brown is quick to point out, however, that times have changed, and mail order isn’t as necessary as it once was: “Now there are shops in just about every town. The local scene is completely evolved. Skateparks are being built where even in the 70s they wouldn’t have been considered.”

Brick-and-mortar shops have exploded in numbers, and they tend to be wary of mail-order companies-mail-order companies can stock more inventory and offer cheaper prices. Frank Langone, co-owner of Theory skate shop in Massachusetts, comments, “They’ve got boards in the CCS catalog for 25 to 30 bucks. It costs us 36 bucks wholesale. Stuff like that definitely irks me.”

But there are plenty of advantages that retail shops will always have over a mass-mailed catalog. “Here, you get the whole interaction,” says Scotty Schwartz of Manhattan’s ABC Boardshop. “Kids come to the shop, and a lot of pros are at the shop. We got skate obstacles at the park across the street, and they can watch videos at the shop. It’s a whole community based around the shop. You can’t get that from mail order.”

The “local scene” issue is ripe for debate when it comes to shops’ beef with mail-order companies. Many shops feel that money could do much more for the local skate scene if it were spent at a retail shop. “It would be better spent with the people who are involved instead of some abstract selling machine,” says Freestyle’s Brown. “The money would be spent in the skaters’ own community, strengthening their own local economy-that gets through to the parents. Perhaps the funds may filter back to build or improve their skatepark.”

Since 2000, San Diego online mail-order giant, skateboard.com, has come up with a way to give back to skateboarders’ communities. Chris Mullins, vice president of product development at skateboard.com, explains that they have an in-house pricepoint deck brand, Rhino Skateboards, that functions like a shop board. But skateboard.com uses this brand to give back to the skaters. “We take a portion of the profits from that brand and have made a skatepark fund, so if you’re a kid trying to get a skatepark in your town and you need financing, we have a fund set up for that,” says Mullins.

Brown also has strong views toward shops that do mail order and operate a retail store (FTC and Active for example): “I don’t think it’s necessary. If someone called me from a neighboring town, I’d refer them to their own shop. I think kids should support their local shop, because their local shop, ideally, is what’s supporting them.”

ABC’s Schwartz isn’t as opposed to the shop/mail-order combo: “I don’t knock shops that do mail order-you’ve gotta make money, and skateboarding doesn’t really make money.”

FTC and Active, however, easily cite that their retail end does better business. For FTC’s Kent Uyehara, the online mail-order side of his business has always been part of his retail formula for a reason: “It’s what drives the print advertising we do,” he says. “The retail store is still by far the better end of business.”

Then there’s shipping, or as Brown puts it, “The deception of mail order.” While mail-order catalogs may list lower prices than the average skate shop, there are shipping costs and waiting time between a customer and his/her order. “When kids come in with a catalog, I love to point things out to them, ‘Look at the shipping you’re going to pay,’ ‘You’re gonna order this, but you’re gonna get something else.’ I love to be the educator,” says Brown.

skateboard.com’s Mullins mentions, “We have pretty reliable shipping, but it never fails that a few of those packages get lost or delivered to the wrong house, that’s always a frustrating thing, that’s another downfall of the mail-order thing.”

And Seth Sauza, lead supervisor at CCS, admits, “If we ship out a package and then it gets lost, we do have to wait fifteen business days to re-ship them another package.”

Shops can easily dismiss mail orders as just another company trying to make a buck off of skateboarding, or as ABC’s Schwartz puts it, “That’s pretty beat. You might as well just be a distributor,” but the mail-order companies are quick to point out the ways in which they’re beneficial to skateboarding and to shops.

Shane Wallace, manager of Active Rideshop claims, “A good skateboard catalog pushes an industry into the right direction,” he says. “CCS kept us on our toes as a retailer. I hope we do the same to other retailers. We all need to work in the same direction and offer a platform for companies to succeed. That’s what defines a good retailer.”

Similarly, CCS’ Sauza notes, “Kids get our catalogs, and if they can’t call on the phone or the parents don’t want to use their credit card, they can just walk over to the skate shop,” he says. “I always tell shops that we’re trying to help them out. I don’t want to get rid of the little people, because that’s how we got here.”

But Brown isn’t buying it, “It’s us, the local shops, that do all the work. We do all the promoting in our respective areas. We are the ones putting all of our time and energy into it: contests, video premieres, skate jams, et cetera,” he says. “What are these pros doing riding for CCS and other companies like that? CCS and other companies like that don’t do jack for skateboarding. That’s what makes me mad. Should these guys really be the ones to reap all of our benefits?”

Active’s Wallace is used to the abuse and takes it with a grain of salt. “A new hater is born every day,” he says. “So many shops cry and tell companies that Active is hurting their business. They say the same about CCS! It’s time to worry about your own business and make skateboarding stronger.”

CCS’ Sauza has had quite different feedback from shops. “We actually have shops call us all the time and they want to buy bulk from us to see if they can get a discount,” he explains. “I’ve never had a store owner call and be upset.”

Active’s Wallace once said, “What will really kill our industry is if the manufacturers go online,” and while companies like DC Shoes and Vans sell direct from their own Web sites, most companies, Tum Yeto and DNA Distribution included, opt to keep their products available only through retailers, online or not.

“We’re all about supporting the retail,” says Tum Yeto’s Mike Page.

DNA Distribution’s Seek brand states its opinion on its Web site: “We want you to buy from your local shop whenever possible. We have many quality dealers that carry most of our products who can make suggestions and give you reliable answers about your needs and skateboard equipment.”

Only time will tell if manufacturers will follow DC and Vans’ lead and add a third variable to this equation.