I was, once again, going to try and get through this without a Brexit mention – but as you will see this was a forlorn hope.
2018 has been pretty good year. The winter season ended well and the summer really kicked in with some amazing sunshine – if not the best for the wind driven boardsports, or those that need waves – but that sunshine brought people out from behind their screens and onto their boards. By Gordon Way.
Distributors appear generally happy with their winter pre-order books, although perhaps more nervous than normal about the general demise of the High Street which is certainly impacting on some of the larger/chain stores. But even in this area some stores are thriving which shows that if you get it right customers will still come to your bricks and mortar stores. If you get it wrong… your destiny is written on the bricks!
Paul Harrison started the Black Sheep skate store in Manchester ten years ago and is still as enthusiastic today as he was then. So how has the tenth year been? “Alright.” I pushed for a bit more. “We’re seeing a polarisation to the bigger players who are all trying to grab a bit more of the market. They need to feed the machine and I feel that the smaller skate shops are suffering as a result.” Does that include Black Sheep? “No. We’re in the middle ground and Black Sheep is a really progressive business never standing still. You have to evolve and develop your business and face the issues head on.”
Paul’s been working in skate for the past 17 years although in a previous incarnation he also worked for the BBC as a Ccmeraman and documentary producer. “It was not for me and even though my Mum still thinks I am messing about, I knew then as I do now, that running my own business is what I want to do.” And running it in skate is a bonus I presume. “It is but we’re lucky because we are small enough to be nimble, smart enough to evolve and we know what we’re about. We know skate.”
Paul is a free thinking, smart thinking individual who understands the pitfalls of running his own business. He’s clever enough to come up with good ideas to maintain the difference but also, in his own words, happy to pinch a good idea if he sees one. Whilst the polarisation will undoubtedly continue, and it may put some smaller stores out of business, I think it’s clear that Black Sheep is certainly going to be ‘alright’ for some considerable time.
It has been a long time since I spoke to Jeremy from TSA, one of the most vocal contributors. “F&*$ing Brexit”. I had apparently just caught him in the car on the way back from a meeting with a freight consultant where all the talk was about Brexit. “But what else is there to talk about – it’s a mess – I cannot believe we are in this position.”
I had to agree with Jeremy and I cannot believe we are in this position either. But enough of the B word. Apart from that how are things? “Really positive – we’re back in growth in all areas – boards, boots, bindings, kids, adults… you name it and it appears to be growing. Of course summer business is low but it’s still showing growth so we’re ready for a good winter.” It seems that Jeremy also has a good memory and he recalls the summer of 1976: “After that amazing summer we had an amazing winter and if we get that again then we really could be seeing the start of something big… the last hurrah until it all turns to $hit!” Here we are back at Brexit again.
So how is Brexit going to change things for TSA? “The main thing is, of course the uncertainty. It’s going to affect my buy for sure. I’m going to be cautious – more so than ever probably. I don’t see what else I can do.”
Bringing Jeremy back to this season: “Our Big Bang was busy – one of the busiest yet with 600 testers over the two days. The interest is there and snowboarding is cool again so we just have to make sure we convert. Early season business is always affected by temperature – early October was warm and I was crapping it, end of October is cold and it’s all turned out fine.”
We ended the conversation with a few more shared expletives about Brexit – not suitable for print.
Over to Darren and Lorraine from Subvert – I managed to get them both on the line at the same time. Subvert is a pure skate and snow store to their customer base like almost no other independent in the UK. So how are things? “Last season was great but it always seems to end so abruptly. We have our snowboard trip to Morzine – the Subvert Slushy Social in April so we always end on a high. Then we work our way through the summer months just gagging for the next winter. This summer we put a lot of effort into promoting skate – we sectioned off some of the car park, put in some features and it worked well. We also ran some girl-only sessions with a female coach, which was really well received. We’ll certainly repeat all of this for 2019.”
And now, winter is here, how are things? “If October is anything to go by it’s going to be a good winter. People are buying earlier and it’s obvious that our customers are really optimistic and we’re hopeful that we’re going to have another great season. The Subvert Slushy Social is already sold out – and that’s not until April next year! A great sign.”
All in all it seemed that Subvert were pretty happy with the year and optimistic about the season to come.
Finally over to Absolute Snow and Matt to see how things are. This year they moved the warehouse to a new location. “Pure chaos. That’s the only way to describe it during our move. Now it’s OK. Teething problems are over and things have settled down. Now it’s heads down for the coming season.”
So what’s new? “The shop is doing way better than we ever thought. It’s interesting that we were online only and we now have a good bricks and mortar store that has evolved from that online business. And a store that’s going really well.”
But the Absolute store is not A-typical. “It’s more of a showroom – destination store if you like – but the one thing we guarantee is personal and experienced attention. We really know our sports and we give our customers 100% attention. They can just walk in but we encourage customers to make an appointment and it’s surprising how many do. With the appointment comes dedicated expert time. That and free coffee or even a beer makes for a great experience all round.”
There was only one negative that Matt alluded to: “Returns. We’re seeing a much higher rate of returns which is, I believe, a shift in online buying culture – buy three, send two back, keep the one you want. This is a real issue for the future.”
Apart from that it was all good and Matt was really optimistic for the coming winter. “Great summer, good indicators, improved margin – all good”
And… no mention of Brexit. By the time you read this it will hopefully all be settled. And if it’s not then it really is going to be a bloody mess.