Success In The Midwest

The Kansas City, Missouri skateboard scene has been on a healthy incline for the past several years, and much of the success can be attributed to the local skate shops that work to keep skateboarding alive in their areas-shops like Escapist.

Escapist is a 100-percent skateboarding shop that is owned by three skaters, who together have over 30 years of experience both on a skateboard and in shops-Dan Askew, Nick Owen, and Adrian Frost. “We wanted to take skateboarding to a new crop of kids, this was going to be something new to them,” says Frost.

Humble Beginnings

The shop wasn’t immediately successful. In fact, it took nearly two years to turn a profit. Part of the reason, explains Frost, is that they started small. “We started so meager-26,000 (dollars) was our entire budget. We didn’t take out a business loan. We looked into it and decided that there’s no way we’d ever get approved, so we might as well not worry about it.”

With little money to spend, and even less coming in, Frost, Askew, and Owen had to create a shop the hard way. “We did it all ourselves-sleepless nights, putting up drywall, wiring, plumbing, you name it,” says Frost. “Everything was custom-built. The TV is in a ramp, and the board wall is a giant vert wall with coping on the top.”

Another reason for the delay in success was their decision to franchise the name Let It Ride, an established Midwestern chain. Askew and Owen were both working at Let It Ride when they decided to branch off. Askew explains how this franchise may have hindered business initially: “I really wish that we would have done our own thing from the get-go. It basically threw away a lot of money that we could have used in building the shop. We would have grown a lot faster if we weren’t having to pay someone else.”

In February of 2002 they made the decision to drop the franchise, and change the name to Escapist. “I would say that if you’re going to buy a franchise, it needs to be a really legitimate one, like McDonald’ s or something. Other than that, don’t worry about it,” says Frost.

Why Start A Shop?

Frost, Owen, and Askew are all lifelong skaters. Once they realized their careers as professional skaters weren’t taking off, they decided to get involved another way. Frost may have been influenced by the lack of a ‘core skate shop when he was growing up: “The skate shop I shopped at most when I was in Texas was a grocery store. It stocked decks. There was no skate shop around. And in Dallas, there were only a couple of ‘core shops at all, and they seem to be so short-lived. I’d only get to go twice, and they’d be out of business.” This absence left Frost with the desire to fill that void for others, creating a scene. “I thought that there are a whole lot of kids that aren’t ever gonna start skating if it doesn’t come to them, so we gotta take it to them.”

Likewise, Askew wasn’t happy with the shops he grew up with and sought to improve. “When I was a kid going in to cool skate shops, I never liked the way that we were treated. The people that worked there didn’t want to grip your board, they just kind of had this attitude.” In addition, he felt it was important to build a healthy scene: “We just really wanted to start a shop that had super-good customer service and built a lot with the kids one-on-one, and at the same time gave back to the skateboarding community by bringing demos and getting people involved.”

Owen explains it was a natural progression: “We want to make a difference in skateboarding because it’s given so much to us. It got to a point where we were working for other shops, and we would know more than the people we were working for ’cause we had so much experience.”

The Skatepark

Pleasant Valley Skatepark is the free public skatepark in the area neighborhood. Owen explains it has helped their customer base flourish.

But Frost feels there is a definite downside to having a skatepark within skating distance: “I think that you should have one in your neighborhood, but I would never put a shop skating distance from your park. I’d be guaranteed to be the biggest free babysitting service in town.” The biggest concern is that there isn’t a telephone within a 30-minute walk from the skatepark. “There’s been a lot of people complaining because if a kid gets injured and there’s nobody around, how’s he going to call his mom? Kids get stranded there all the time,” adds Frost.

Business Practices

Escapist’s success can be attributed to several factors, one of which is a distinct lack of the “bro deal,” commonly found in ‘core shops. This has kept the notoriously non-lucrative hardgoods merchandise more profitable than most shops. “We definitely make money off our hardgoods. Those shops that aren’t (making money on hardgoods) are probably offering ‘pick out any complete for 100 bucks.’ We don’t do that. We just price it up. Our average complete here is 150.” Standing firm with its prices has kept Escapist one of the more profitable skate shops in the area. “We offer a five-dollar discount if you buy a complete, which means free griptape. I don’t think that that has hurt us. I don’t find that we have an alarming amount of kids in the area buying from CCS because they’re offering the 119 (dollar) special.”

Another factor that has kept Escapist’s business on the rise is a comprehensive e-mail list of every customer. “That thing is gold,” says Frost. “Every kid that comes in, we ring them up under their name, address, and e-mail.” Escapist uses this list to keep in touch with the local skaters, which helps to preserve the scene. “We send bulk e-mails about sales, demos, new skatepark in town, whatever we think that the whole skateboard community should know about.” Frost estimates that of the 3,400 contacts he has, approximately 1,000 are returning customers.

Escapist’s typical customer is described as an early teens white suburban male who has been skating for about three years. “I think that’s the rate at which it turns over,” Frost explains. “Only a small percentage hang on after that.”

Frost also understands the importance of good customer service, especially when it comes to ordering a specific product-something he’s found little of in the area: “If I don’t have it, I whip out my phone and I start making calls right there, with the guy in the store. Nobody else seems to want to do that.” He’s learned this first and foremost from Escapist’s direct competition-a mall skate-shop. “I think it was the smartest move we ever made to move in three blocks away. Every time somebody went in there and they didn’t have it (what they were looking for), they came here.”

What To Watch

For a few skaters with little to no prior business experience, Escapist is remarkably organized. Frost watches a few key factors to see exactly how business is doing: “The number-one factor, of course, is dollar sales. We compare them in a whole lot of ways-we have a spreadsheet that I’ve built and updated ever since we first started that has our daily sales. It has moving averages with our past seven days, our past 30 days, our past 60 days, our past year, so you can watch it like you would follow a stock.” Observing the numbers has kept Frost in touch with the consistent flow of business over the past three years. “Looking at that chart, the same exact spikes and the same exact valleys are almost identical, as far as timing goes, every year.”

Watching these numbers, Frost has also seen an increase in Escapist’s business-despite a downturn in the global skateboard economy. “We have definitely seen significant growth in our area. I do hear that the country as a whole has had a cutback-maybe not how many people are skating, but definitely in how much they are spending.” Frost attributes this mainly to location and has a positive outlook for the future: “I think our situation is unique because we are in a very fast-growing area, and we are the only shop. I think it’s going to continue to grow.”

Perhaps it’s because they are in Middle America and haven’t yet felt the burn
of the industry downturn-or maybe it’s because they’re doing something really, really right.



Don’t Call It A Side Project …

As busy as they are with skating and running a shop, the Escapist guys are all leading double lives. Here’s a quick rundown of their other endeavors:

1. Second Nature: Askew’s record label, home to several popular hardcore bands such as Ilya, Waxwing, Blood Brothers, Coalesce, and more.

2. Through Being Nice: The Escapist team is currently working on a part in this Midwestern independent video.

3. Catch The A-Train: Frost is currently the Beat Box champion of Midwest, and has won both the ScribbleJam 2003 and the Twin Cities 2003 contests. Check out 411 #49 for a sample of his skills.

Pie Chart: 30%: footwear, 25%: boards, 15%: apparel, 10%: grip tape, 5%: wheels, 5%: trucks, 3%: videos/DVDs, 3%: bearings, 3%: other accessories, 1%: safety gear