The Company Store: Does the Euro surf retail market give us a glimpse of the future?

“I owe my soul to the company store.”

Or so said Tennessee Ernie Ford back in 1953. But he could have just as easily been singing about the European surf retail marketplace circa 2002. There’s no doubt that the biggest trend in the European surf industry today is the proliferation of the “company store.” Biarritz, the undisputed Surf City of Europe, is nearly a company town itself: Billabong, Volcom, Oxbow, Rip Curl, Gotcha, and Quiksilver all have flagship retail outlets prominently located around the city center. Quiksilver currently has over 100 stores in Europe and is opening a new store every week.

“I would be hard-pressed to identify an independent surf shop in the southwest coast of France,” remarks Alan Tiegen of EuroSIMA. “There are surfboard makers who don’t sell clothes, and maybe a store that sells clothing with no boards. But a full-scale independent surf shop carrying an array of board shapers and clothing labels is pretty rare.”

According to Pierre Gascogne, the longtime publisher of Europe’s largest surf magazine Surf Sessions, “Integration is the word here — from the factory direct to the consumer. More and more shops are owned by the big companies.”

There are, of course, plenty of good reasons for companies to do this. Visibility. Merchandising. Image. O’Neill, for instance, recently added offices in Anglet, a small town bordering Biarritz the way Capitola borders Santa Cruz.

“We were headquartered in Holland for business reasons,” explains O’Neill President Pat O’Neill. “But we want a presence in the heart of our lifestyle. And we want to control our branding.”

Volcom has a newly opened office in Hossegor and a store in Biarritz. “When you move into a new territory you have to be careful to do it right,” says Richard Wolcott, Volcom’s president. “We want to be able to present our image and our product correctly from the very beginning.”

Europe’s indisputable effect on worldwide fashion trends has some here wondering if the company-store trend will be the next European import. Could the U.S. market really be heading for such a drastic switch in direction?

Probably not.

“The U.S.A. can handle a lot more brands on the shelf,” notes Gary Valentine, president of Globe International. “There are more surf and skate-shoe labels in California than there are total surf companies in Europe.”

More importantly, the reason a brand builds a company store in Europe isn’t the same as in America. “The drive to open stores here {in Europe} is in large part due to the fact that the distribution system is not adequate to begin with,” says Tiegen. “There is no Pacific Sunwear chain in Europe, no Zumiez — not even a Jack’s or a Huntington Surf & Sport.”

Most brands have a store in their hometown already: O’Neill in Santa Cruz, Local Motion in Honolulu, Rip Curl in Torquay and San Clemente.

“To do a retail rollout of any significance in the U.S. requires a huge investment,” says Tom Moore, owner of top-tier retail-outlet Beach Access. “Only the very biggest brands can afford to do that here.”

But for retailers, the European phenomenon still warrants close scrutiny. After all, nobody thought the miniskirt would ever go beyond Carnaby Street either.

by Jim Kempton