California Surf Shops Discuss Slow and Soggy Spring Sales
California retailers may soon see relief from the year’s soggy start, with nicer weather potentially on the horizon. However, even with forecasts more upbeat going into next month, retailers can’t shake the poor start to the year.
“January through the first part of April was the wettest and coldest weather I can remember in Southern California,” said Sun Diego President Dave Nash. “It was absolutely depressing. In our business, weather is our number one competitor, and this year it’s winning.”
Nash said the time change typically offers a business lift, but even that didn’t occur this year, and the spring break selling season took a hit.
“Spring breaks for different areas also give our business a kickstart for spring as college students and people from Arizona flock to San Diego to enjoy our beautiful weather and lifestyle,” Nash said. “Well, it appears a lot of people changed their minds about coming here for their vacation and that business is impossible to make up.”
Cold, rainy weather mixed with the sun between October and mid-February can be a boon for sales, pointed out Josh Hansen of Hansen Surfboards, which also has a robust snow business.
“This year was really good, although the strength and consistency of the storms started to hurt our business as people did not go out when it rained that hard, or when you could not get to Big Bear and Mammoth,” Hansen said.
Aaron Pai, owner of Huntington Surf & Sport, said his employees had to close early, around 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., over a dozen days collectively across his stores this year due to bad weather tamping down foot traffic.
“It was a ghost town on Main Street (Huntington Beach),” Pai recalled. “I’ve never ever seen it that empty on Main Street. We’ve done stuff that we’ve never done in decades and closed stores early. We never, ever do that.”
Business So Far
ActionWatch produces data culled from its panel of about 150 U.S. surf and skate specialty stores, so it’s a read of the core, with insights Senior Director Eric Stanton said can typically be applied more broadly across retail.
“Surf hardgoods was down the last two months, but it’s not down as badly (as past months),” said Stanton, citing data generated from the ActionWatch panel. “So, we’re starting to see surf moving in the right direction.”
Skate hardgoods continues to be challenged and is not as impacted by weather. The pullback there is largely to do with the younger consumer not returning and investing in new equipment, he said.
“It’s been a very long, tough road for skate hardgoods,” Stanton said. “It’s basically experienced at least a year-and-a-half or more of a decline, so weather isn’t going to be as big of an issue for skate hardgoods.
Softgoods has generally fared much better so far this year and that’s largely due to some categories not being as attached to weather, Stanton said.
“You can wear apparel and footwear when the weather’s not good because most of this stuff is not performance based,” he said.
Sandals would be the one callout, and the category saw a slight decline in February and March.
“It’s the one footwear product that’s fairly locked into weather because you’re talking about people wearing those going to the beach or after surfing,” Stanton said.
Making Up for Lost Sales
While some retailers are hopeful good weather can help offset the gloomy start to the year, Nash pointed out that other factors are also at play, including industry discounting.
“I do agree with Paul (Vissla CEO Paul Naude in his interview with Rosenthal & Rosenthal’s Maria Contino on SES) that business will pick up this summer, assuming our weather cooperates,” Nash said. “But it’s going to take industry brands stopping all of their promotions before we can even consider making up any business.”
Hansen offered a similar take when it comes to making up for lost business.
“I think there is always some pent-up business that will help fill the hole, but normally it is hard to recover from bad weather as people change their plans,” he said.
It’s a tough start to the year, Pai said, in weighing in on whether a ramp up in business through the remainder of 2023 might help offset the weather impact.
“But all we need is good weather to dig out of the hole,” he said. “The bright spot is the weather last Saturday here in Orange County and Huntington Beach was amazing and so business was amazing.”
Stanton of ActionWatch agreed that the last week-and-a-half of April is likely to show some literal bright spots in the ActionWatch numbers, given the higher temperatures forecast for many parts of Southern California this weekend.
“La Niña is ending and El Niño is going to be picking up starting now,” Stanton said, citing National Weather Service predictions. “I would fully expect a definite rebound in the latter part of April and then definitely going forward into May.”
Weather or Economy?
Will Hutchinson, co-founder and co-owner of Proof Lab, has seen the weather’s impact in different ways across his Mill Valley stores. Proof Lab Surf Shop carries more of the traditional surf brands, while the neighboring Proof Lab Station is more outdoor oriented.
“The weather’s been unusual relative to the last handful of winters for sure,” Hutchinson said. “But it’s affected us in different ways. We don’t do snow, but the Station store that’s a little more outdoor oriented has actually been doing better. That’s up a little bit with these stormy days, but the surf shop is down, particularly hardgoods. For Northern California, it was a Tahoe winter, so everybody was buying snow gear.”
In addition to the hardgoods challenges, categories such as sandals and boardshorts are also a bit soft in the surf shop side of the Proof Lab business.
Still, Hutchinson’s waiting to see how consumer demand plays out before blaming weather entirely for how business has fared so far.
“It’s too early to tell because we’re not sure how much of it is due to the weather versus potentially a bigger hangover effect from the COVID boom, or maybe something else in the macroeconomy,” he said.
Despite the headwinds, retailers are hopeful as they look out at the rest of the year.
“Overall, I’m very positive about business and the industry,” Nash said. “There are a lot of good things brewing.”
With temperatures expected to be in the mid-70s in many parts of Southern California, and many industry brands set to descend on Huntington Beach this weekend for the Surf Industry Members Association’s inaugural Surfscape, it could prove a turning point.
“We’re just glad we’re out of that pattern of a huge storm every week,” Pai said. “We’re digging out of it like a lot of other surf shops, and it’s all a food chain. If the customers don’t come in our store, then our cash flow is slow. Then payment is slow. If payment is slow, then the brands are slow in their cash flow. We’re all in this together. We know we had a tough first quarter, but there are three quarters left, so let’s make them count.”
Kari Hamanaka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.