Retail Wednesdays: Wise Surfboards

Editors Note: We are proud to present a new series, Retail Wednesdays, powered by our friends over at Building the Revolution. Each week we’ll profile a different core specialty retailer. Most would agree these guys are the backbone of our industry, and deserve serious credit in evolving to fit the needs of a rapidly changing market. 

WISE surfboards
Wise Surfboards General Manager Rob Aschero

Retailer: Wise Surfboards
Location: San Francisco
Years in Business: Bob Wise has independently owned the business for 49 years
Interviewee: Rob Aschero
Job Title: General Manager/Buyer

How was business over the last 360 days?

We have seen better times, that is for sure.

I think nationally a lot of the blame for poor retail sales was placed on the election cycle, the lack of spending by the millennial generation, stagnant wages, and so on, which are all contributing factors. But locally, 2016 was as bad of a year for surf and weather as you want to experience running a surf shop.

Starting with the El Nino of winter 15/16 we experienced non-stop rain, and giant storm surf, the first quarter of the year. Spring and summer returned to it’s normal foggy self, which we avoided previous years. Then the fall surf season rolled around and instead of getting surf we experienced record rain in October, which is normally one of our best months for fun surf, good weather, and upward projecting sales, as it kicks off the surf season the locals wait all year to enjoy.

The rest of 2016 and start of 2017 have had near record rainfall – so much that our statewide drought has all but disappeared. Our store is built on selling product to go surf, and when there is none, well, people go do other things – in the Bay Area there are plenty of options.

Oh yeah, and in 2016, San Francisco surpassed New York as the most expensive city in the country to live. Disposable income isn’t all that disposable when you are paying $1,500 a month rent to share a closet sized room with someone you just met on Craigslist.


What are you doing to evolve with todays retail market?

Bob Wise started making surfboards in his parents’ garage in the late ’60s for a few friends, and then opened up a little storefront to sell surfboards to a few more friends.

All Bob has ever wanted to do is sell surfboards, and for almost 50 years that is what we have done. It was only with the persistent urging of Jack O’Neill, in the early ’70s, that Bob even brought in some of Jack’s wetsuit tops. Bob really was always about the boards.

In 2017, we still run Wise Surfboards as a place to buy boards, wetsuits, and other product you need to go surfing. We have always been a little light on the fringe stuff that pays the bills. I totally understand retailers branching out and getting into alternative avenues of generating income from their storefront, but if evolving a surf shop today involves selling things other than product to get you in the water than this evolutionary cycle might have run its course.

At the end of the day you have to believe in whatever it is you sell and if you want to sling cups of coffee, smoothies, ice cream cones, or whatever, to willing and engaging customers coming through your door than by all means do whatever it takes as a retailer to keep the doors open. I sold ice cream as a 14-year-old, and I will eat it today. But I won’t serve it.

wise surfboards
Inside the doors of Wise Surfboards San Francisco store front. Not a bad view.

How do you feel brands can better assist brick and mortar?

Are sales managers going to read this thing? I am not sure many of them read, or listen, to anything because there are many conversations I have had that seem to fall on deaf ears pretty regularly. I would imagine other buyers, owners, and shop guys have had the same sort of experiences.

Brands need to commit to brick and mortar as a viable part of their business model, listen to their concerns, and address them. I think a lot of them have taken the easy way out the past 5-10 years. The lure of perceived easy pickings online— both direct and through online dealers — has seemed to become the focus of their concerns.

Brands have to realize that there is a finite amount of product that you can sell in any given year and just because you manufacture something doesn’t mean it is all going to sell regardless of how many doors or websites you are selling it on.

Brands have to tighten up their distribution online and work closely with those websites that are going to support the brand and the sport of surfing.

Are there enough brick and mortar retailers, who also have well managed websites, to satisfy the online shopping masses looking for surf gear? At the end of the day, once surfing as a business proposition goes south, then joesurfonline.com starts selling troll dolls, scooters, or whatever else they can make a buck on, because surfing never meant a thing to them other than a way to make money.

Overproduction has been completely out of control in the industry for way too long now to the point that I doubt most of these companies have the faintest idea of how much in-season full margin product they could actually sell. They are going to have to
take many steps back to figure that one out and I doubt many of them are willing to do it.

Lastly, I am sure there are countless brick and mortar guys out there who enjoy selling stuff, not for the paycheck, but for the love of it. I know I do even after 20 years of doing it.

But how do we as brick and mortar guys, with all this knowledge of product, decades of practical experience in the water, and passion and love for surfing sell something to the customer standing in front of us, with a wetsuit we spent a half hour fitting him into, and a smart phone in his hand saying it’s $150 less on “idontsupportsurfingijustprofitfromit.com”? And that is the
rub.

I will go to war with my knowledge, technical expertise, practical experience, and salesmanship with any website, anytime, anywhere. But it isn’t a fair fight because companies are too spineless to enforce the ever laughable MSRP and everything is always cheaper online.

Guess what Mr. Numbers Cruncher at Brand X? That new wetsuit you’re frothing over, that you claim to be the best, warmest, most flexible one ever, that is hitting stores 8/1/17? It’s already worth 20% less than whatever you think it is worth, and by not enforcing the MSRP of the products you sell, you are completely devaluing the worth of what you manufacture. In time, that will start to impact your bottom line.

What do you feel is the future of surf shops?

That is a hard one.

If manufacturers continue on their current path than the surf shop as we have known it is really going to fade out. The legacy guys—you know who you are and much respect to you—are starting to get to the age of hanging it up, as they well should. Hopefully, they can retreat to some private ex-surf shop owner island where they all sit around surfing perfect waves all day long, drinking cold beers, and eating lobster, while laughing at the shit show they just ducked under like a sneaker set at Ocean Beach.

There will be existing shops that will conform to today’s environment and figure out a way to get by on hard work, creativity,
embracing change, and a bit of luck. I do think those centered around surf spots and cater to the entry level surfer will do well if they can embrace their rental market and really concentrate on converting those people into customers with over the top customer service from day one.

I would assume we will be seeing more corporate owned stores, as some of the market is freed up by other doors closing. Don’t get me started on that rant.

I just think it is going to be hard for the average surf-stoked person to open up a surf shop with the capital and experience required to have a chance to succeed in today’s retail environment.

If someone is smart enough to run a business and has the money required to start one, then he or she is probably smart enough to know to not open up a surf shop. Personally, I still have faith in small business, and I think in time, things will sort themselves out and there will be areas of opportunity for some surf-stoked teenager to go from shaping boards in his parents’ garage to starting a 50-year professional journey just like Bob Wise did back in the day.