Showtime for Emerging Brands at Surf Expo
Weather strikes again. After a year of too much rain at the wrong time in some parts of the country and not enough snow elsewhere, storms snarled travel to Surf Expo last week, pushing off appointments to later in the show for some.
Still, once flight delays and cancellations got sorted out, the meetings in Orlando kicked into high gear as vendors and buyers sought to push past weather woes and a lackluster Holiday, and get to work seeing lines and writing orders for Spring immediates or Fall/Holiday 2024.
For Fair Harbor, Vice President of Sales Derek Miller said as of Thursday morning – Day Two of Surf Expo – it was coming in as the best show so far, with consistent appointments and walk-ups.
He attributed the traffic to a confluence of factors.
“I think it’s the expansion of the volley category within resort as well as some surf shops just taking up a larger footprint,” Miller said. “Some general disruption in the market is causing opportunities for smaller brands like us. It’s also just the evolution of the consumer in general and how they’re discovering brands in the digital space more so than ever. We have a very large digital footprint and people are coming into stores asking for brands that they’re finding online on their phones.”
Last week was the first trade show previewing Fall 2024 from Fair Harbor. The collection marks Fair Harbor’s largest sportswear offering for the season and further expansion of women’s, which previously hadn’t carried an offering for the back half of the year.
Most orders for Fall 2024 were coming in three to four times larger than what they were a year ago, according to Miller.
Cova first re-emerged at Surf Expo in September, sharing a booth with parent Jantzen Brands Corp.’s namesake line in the women’s swimwear section of the floor. Last week brought the brand better placement within the surf area and a standalone booth.
“We’re doing very well; we’re happy,” said Cova co-founder Kent Stevens. “Our first show, we were with Jantzen, the ladies swim line so we were parked pretty deep into ladies swimwear. We were a bit in the wrong zone and this show, we negotiated with show management and they got us more in our neighborhood. We could sit here. We could sit in boutique.The type of line we have, we have some flexibility to be in different places.”
For Luxottica-owned Costa, the eyewear brand looked to catch the attention of buyers by playing up releases on both the performance and lifestyle front with its King Tide, Catherine, and Kailano styles.
“The holiday season for us typically is pretty strong and we had a couple of products that we launched in the back half of the year that did really, really well for us,” Costa Brand Director Jed Larkin said of the trio of new styles.
Holiday results varied, but many would agree the key selling season got off to a slow start.
“There was an extra week in there and we saw weeks one through three of December were soft,” Salty Crew North America General Manager Jason Shelton said. “Weeks four and five were really good. It just didn’t make up for weeks one through three, and I think we’re seeing retailers are all off heavy double-digits. It felt like across channels, across regions, retailers were just off for the fourth quarter.”
Yet, Salty Crew’s business in comparison to the rest of the market outperformed in most cases, according to Shelton.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” he said. “It was great. The brand stacks well certainly in T-shirts, tops, fleece – all those logo categories and then we have a couple different woven categories that are really taking off.”
Rhythm, similarly, ended Holiday on a nice note.
“Holiday was solid. The reports that I was getting from retailers, things really picked up,” U.S. Sales Director Sean Fleuriau said. “The last two weeks, I was seeing big spikes.”
He pointed to Jack’s as an example. Rhythm’s business there tripled from its best week during the summer at the retailer.
“It seemed like retail had a slow start, but a really strong finish,” Fleuriau said.
While consumers ultimately ended up spending, how they’re shopping differed from previous holidays. They came into stores with a list of what they wanted and didn’t deviate much.
Retailer Wave Riding Vehicles tried a few buy-one-get-one deals to move sales after enjoying a few years of no promotions during the pandemic.
“That (BOGO strategy) fell totally flat on its face going into Thanksgiving this year,” WRV President LG Shaw said. “We tried to do any kind of BOGO. No takers. Everybody just wanted to buy what they wanted to buy at a discount. So, we definitely saw a reduction in volume of sales.”
Even still, WRV did better than expected in the final quarter of the year, coming in about flat with margins down slightly, Shaw said. The business originally expected to be down around 10% to 20% for holiday.
Brands with the resources to do so are working to stay competitive in a shifting consumer landscape by nabbing big-name hires or iterating on product.
“We’re showing a totally revamped line,” said Bryce Cope, team manager at Xcel Wetsuits. “We’ve reinvented our tried and true and it’s the first time in five years that we’ve done that.”
Last year, Salty Crew tapped Mary Miller as vice president of merchandising and design and Courtney Kincaid as vice president of sales. Both were on the show floor at Surf Expo. Most recently, Mike Lonson, former Quiksilver boardshorts design manager, joined as creative director in December.
“It’s a level of design sophistication that we’ve been looking for, so we’re really pretty fired up on that,” Shelton said of Lonson’s hiring.
The hires are important as Salty Crew focuses on playing up other categories outside of T-shirts and hats, while also growing women’s, which is less than 35% of the current business.
Dune Suncare, the line by Mei Kwok and Emily Doyle, has been rapidly expanding since its official launch into the market in the summer of 2022.
The brand, which was new to Surf Expo, is in about 800 doors. Distribution includes Ulta, Bluemercury, Urban Outfitters, and Goop, along with specialty surf shops. This year will see Dune launch a clear gel stick, its first tanning product, and tinted mineral beauty products.
“We’ll be expanding into more doors, launching at a few majors,” said Doyle, who serves as the company’s CEO. “We’re expecting to double our door count by spring.”
Breaking Out the Crystal Ball
Last year was tough. Some expect the challenges to continue at least a bit longer.
“I think we’re all facing headwinds,” said Peter Maule, Marquee Brands executive vice president and general manager of active/outdoor brands. “There are still a lot of national brands dumping products, which affects us all. We as a company have been diligent just controlling the things we can control, managing our expenses and making sure we’re being smart about what we’re doing. We’re on budget, which I think to be honest with you, if you asked us six months ago, I’d say we’re probably not going to be on budget, but we are.”
If there have been bright spots, it’s Body’s Glove’s wholesale business. The channel has been able to offset the softness seen in direct-to-consumer. Additionally, the past four weeks have seen women’s swim sales go “through the roof,” Maule said, in a bounce back happening across channels.
“2024 is going to be a hard year for everybody,” Maule said. “It’s an election year and I think we’re still seeing the inventory (excess) situation out there. Buyers are definitely skittish.”
For others, there’s a leveling off that’s making some optimistic.
“We’re back to a more pre-COVID, traditional buying formula, a much easier open-to-buy – buy your regular scale, buy your regular color mix,” WRV’s Shaw said. “Now, it’s just managing are we going to be up, flat, or down? And, after getting out of holiday, it feels like we can probably maintain flat this year, which I think is a win right now because we’re still comping over ’19. We’re in a comfortable spot.”
Reef came out about in-line to better-than-expectations in 2023, setting the business up for what could be a good 2024.
“We had a very good year, all things considered, in a tough environment, and holiday was pretty good,” Reef Brand President Mike Jensen said. “So, we’re really optimistic going into spring. We’re optimistic on the consumer and feel great about the product range. We think we’re really well positioned, and we’re optimistic for the industry in general.”
The majority of Rhythm’s recent growth really began to take hold in Spring 2024, given Fleuriau only began selling the line starting with the Fall 2023 collection. The past holiday didn’t truly reflect the amount of Rhythm product that could have been on the market, Global General Manager Josh Barrett pointed out.
Add to that the fact that Rhythm, over the past few years, began resonating with a younger consumer even as it continued to retain the existing shopper base, and things continue to look up for the label.
“The brand is really starting to gear up and so from Spring/Summer 2024, we’ve got a lot more depth going into the market and that’s where we’re going to really start to be noticed a lot more,” Barrett said.
And at Katin’s booth, which sat just across from Rhythm at Surf Expo, Vice President of Sales Dale Rhodes was equally upbeat.
“I’m a pretty optimistic guy,” Rhodes said. “By the indicators of all the pre-books – we’ve already pre-booked Spring, Summer, and Fall ’24 – I think we’re going to have another good year as a brand. As an industry, I think things are starting to level out. People are finding their way. I know that we’ve captured quite a bit of business from all the noise that’s happening. So we’re pretty excited and we’re excited about the other brands that are like-minded like us that are coming up the ranks too.”