AWH Open House

Midwest distributor welcomes retailers and kick-starts the spring buying season.

It’s like being in a candy store. The AWH Sales warehouse in Evanston, Illinois is a treasure trove of skateboard products-10,000 square feet of everything from Giant Distribution, NHS, Powell, Shorty’s, and on and on-it even has the complete line of Vita footwear. For Midwest skate shops, AWH is a one-stop wholesale mega-mart that stocks just about everything they need, and once a year the distributor kicks off the spring selling season with an open-house event featuring crazy deals, catered food, and a chance to meet the staff.

AWH spends a month preparing for the open-house weekend-cleaning and painting the warehouse, organizing all the product, and marking down sale items. On the weekend of March 10-11 dealers filed through the vast space, filling their carts with fresh hardgoods for spring. “It’s kind of the start of the season,” says Priscilla Zitzer, whose family operates the four Phase II shops in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area. “Everybody goes to AWH.”

While his brother Paul is busy with his pro career, Mark Zitzer manages the Phase II stores. Mark came to the open house to take advantage of the deals: “We always come down, get super good discounts, and get to hang out with a few people.” Zitzer estimates that he saved about ten-percent total on his order this weekend: “We got a bunch of decks at less than half price. Same with wheels. They’re older, but we put them on completes, so we get a good margin on those. We got truck discounts by the case, griptape, bearings-heavy stuff.”

With stacks of decks, cases of trucks, and boxes of wheels piled high on eager dealers’ carts, the open house is a testament to the legacy of customer service that AWH has established over the past 25 years. “AWH is fantastic,” says Steve Pratt of Recyclist, a bike and skateboard shop in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. Recyclist has been carrying skateboard equipment for almost three years, and Pratt has been an AWH customer ever since. “Right now I just deal with them. Our area’s new and growing, so I buy a lot of the closeouts and sale items. I don’t have any hardcore semi-pros coming in yet. As soon as that picks up, I’ll start buying the premium products.”

AWH was founded in 1976 in the back room of Art Harris’ Tom Thumb Hobbies And Crafts store in Evanston. The growing sport seemed to fit into the scheme of the store at the time, and Harris decided early on to help promote skateboarding by distributing products to other shops in the area. “That was an interesting time to be involved in the business,” he says. “Everything was changing so fast. Ten-inch-wide boards became popular overnight and made a whole bunch of equipment obsolete.”

Like a handful of other companies and distributors, Harris survived some tough times as skateboarding came in and out of fashion, particularly in the early 90s when many of the companies he carried, Vision and Powell Peralta among them, had become a minority share of the market. “We didn’t carry World Industries,” he says. “And World was about 90 percent of the business at one time. So we had to scale back and tough it out.”

During that period in the early 90s, AWH suspended its open-house event one year, but Harris says it’s an important part of the business-beyond the extra savings the open house affords AWH’s customers, it’s an opportunity to meet the distribution company’s employees in person. Four of the 110 dealers attending this weekend, he points out, have been to every AWH open house since Harris began hosting them in 1987.

Over the last quarter-century, some classic equipment has come through these doors. Some of it-primarily late-80s Powell Peralta and Vision decks and wheels-has never left. There are dusty corners and out-of-reach shelves piled high with old boxes-it’s a collector’s fantasyland. But AWH doesn’t specialize in collectible goods, it serves hundreds of Midwest dealers in constant need of the latest stuff, from Element decks to Tensor trucks. And the 500 or so people who came this weekend don’t curate museums, they run shops. So their eyes were focused on the shelves filled with modern and discounted product.

The open house is AWH’s way of kicking off the spring buying season by giving its customers an opportunity to save on shipping and take advantage of closeouts and sale items. “As soon as that door busts open, they all know where to go, where the cheap stuff is,” says Dave Harris, who helps manage the company with his father Art and Tony Aimone. “It’s a battlefield out there.”

With some trucks going as cheap as four dollars, and top-name wheels going for three, some dealers drive nine hours or more to load up their vans and stretch their margins. Most of the closeout stuff is gone in the Saturday-morning rush, says Harris, adding that about 75 percent of the weekend’s business is done on the first day. “We really emphasize the staples,” he says. “And what’s amazing is that you’ll see pallets of stuff going out of here, and next week they’re calling for more stuff. It’s like, “You bought everything we have. How can you be needing stuff already?'”

Harris realizes not all of his customers can make it to the open house. So a couple weeks after the event, AWH offers similar stock-up-for-spring deals for shipped orders. “A lot of people just can’t get out of the shop on the weekend,” says Harris. “So they get the same deals and can get all the staples in the shop. It hurts the margins and whatnot, but it’s something we do for the stores, and we’ve been doing it for a long time. It’s something that’s almost expected.”

While the open house only happens once a year, dealers regularly visit AWH to comb the shelves and handpick their orders. Tom Ohm has been running Jeric’s Skateboard Shop in Joliet, Illinois for about six years and makes frequent trips to Evanston to save shipping costs on hardgoods. “I come here almost every week because you can touch it, feel it, and see it,” he says. “Some of the brochures are great, but I can come up, get it, and save the transportation. Especially when it’s shipped from California, you can save a buck, buck-and-a-half a board.”

This weekend, because of the extra discounts, Ohm has assembled a formidable mound of hardgoods on his cart. “I think in any business, if you can save a couple-hundred dollars, you might as well come,” he says. “You buy stuff like boards, helmets, hardware, wheels, and stuff that turns quick. We’re buying about ten cases of trucks, but sometimes I come up here in the summer and buy three or four cases every third week. So why not take advantage if they’re selling them for twelve-percent off?”

Harris encourages his customers to visit the warehouse and do their own shopping. It not only gives him and his staff a chance to meet them, but he says it’s also good for business: “We’ve figured out that a store comes in here with a list of stuff that they need, which is what they would do over the phone. And then they’re like, “Oh wait. This just came in today. I need this in the shop.’ So the orders always get boosted by twenty percent.”

Another feature of the open house is the vendor room, an area adjacent to the warehouse where about ten manufacturers set up tables and display some of their products. “The goal here is to support AWH, and to support them by coming out and meeting the retailers in this part of the country who don’t get to meet manufacturers often,” says Giant Vice President Of Sales Bod Boyle, who began coming to the open houses in 1994 when he was with NHS. “Trucking out to ASR doesn’t make sense for some of these people. They deserve the same support and information, so you have to make the effort to come out and meet them.”

Companies that have been coming to AWH open houses for several years have brought pro skaters to meet the dealers, although none made it this past spring. But Santa Cruz did premiere its new video, Uprising, on Saturday, and Santa Cruz and Independent cohosted the AWH party that evening at a Chi
cago nightclub where the pretense of official business faded quickly.

While the AWH open house serves as an alternative trade show for many Midwestern shops, stores that order some products direct from companies do travel to the ASR and Surf Expo shows to visit those brands. “We go to ASR in Long Beach,” says Ohm of Jeric’s. “We go to see World Industries, Dwindle, and all those companies AWH doesn’t carry. If we didn’t go to the shows, we’d never meet the people we deal with. I buy completes from them direct, and it’s always good to keep the contacts alive so when you want something for a demo, you can get some promotional items.”

The vendors at the open house-Climax, Shorty’s, Deluxe, Grind King, Supernaut, NHS, Innes, Giant, and Vita-showed the products that AWH actually stocks, had catalogs available, and fielded questions about their lines. “It’s touching and feeling it, and getting an explanation from someone who’s involved in the creation of the product,” says Boyle. “It makes a big difference. And you actually get to talk to retailers as opposed to rushing through appointments. That’s really important for us because we get to learn about their business. At ASR we’re usually showing them our product, and it’s so busy that you don’t get to listen back.”

“We mixed up the vendors a little bit this year,” says Harris, adding that he doesn’t have the room to invite every brand he carries. “This is the first year Shorty’s and Grind King have been here. It’s nice because they’re here to promote AWH, first and foremost, and then their product.”

With the Midwest skateboard market coming out of hibernation every spring, AWH’s annual open-house event is the alarm clock that wakes up retailers all across the plains. But it also helps the distributor prepare for the new season by liquidating some old stock. “We generate a lot of cash in this one weekend,” says Harris. “But it costs a lot. Just the food alone is over 2,000 dollars, and the overtime I’ve had all my guys putting in-we were here ’til ten o’clock every night for the last week. It’s a lot of preparation. If you were to come here in a month, the warehouse would look totally different. It’s not that it’s trashed or anything-we keep things pretty neat. But when it’s open house, we go all out, and everything is picture perfect.”