As the Internet continues its inexorable march, stomping all the best parts of human civilization into dust in the name of convenience, one of the first casualties littering the road to the Matrix will surely be the independent retailer. As if the looming specter of big-box chains like Walmart and Costco Pied Pipering the middle class away from Main Street wasn't bad enough, your local indie retailer also has to fend off Amazon, a company so powerful and entrenched in our culture that it doesn't even care whether or not it makes a profit on its tablets. And if you listen very closely, you can hear the eager buzzing of a million Amazon drones hovering just over the horizon, waiting to deliver whatever widget we can't live without right to our front doors.
The numbers don't lie. Sales at private retailers grew less than one percent last year, according to Fortune. Holiday in-store sales numbers fell 50 percent from three years ago. Meanwhile, Americans blew through nearly $200 billion shopping online in 2014; that number is estimated to be closer to $270 billion for 2015.
Increasingly, money spent on surf gear is part of all those hundreds of billions of dollars. Want a new leash? New fins? New wetsuit? Why not head on over to Amazon and fill that gnawing void in your little consumerist heart with just 1-Click™. Don't care for Amazon? That's fine. There are dozens of surfy clearance websites selling last year's castoffs for Bargain Basement Closeout Prices! The Internet killed the pleasant, dusty bookstore down the street. It grabbed your favorite local record store by the neck and drowned it in a bathtub. Everyone knows the Internet is coming for our cherished neighborhood surf shops, too. But then again, maybe it isn't.
I recently spoke with a collection of surf-shop owners and managers, from a variety of stores. I'm talking the whole spectrum here—everything from no-bullshit, high-performance shops stocking only Big Surfing's most corporate and monopolistic brands to granola-munching, incense-burning, holier-than-thou places trading on surfing's country soul past. Some of these shops sell their products online; some refuse to even consider the proposition. But each and every owner told me the same thing: they're not worried by online shopping. Sure, it complicates the picture by adding a new kind of competition, and, of course, some terrible people go into surf shops to try on wetsuits with the intention to later buy them cheaper on the Web (full disclosure: I've done that), and yeah, sometimes said shops have to price match to compete with online retailers, and all of that sucks. But none of these business owners cited online shopping as a significant or alarming dent in their business. Where the rest of American independent retailers are suffering through our zeitgeist of must-have-it-faster-and-cheaper, surf shops seem to be plugging along, no better or worse off than they were before. As it turns out, surf shops appear to have long ago, and quite organically, nailed the business model that brick-and-mortar retailers are only now turning to in an effort to survive the online onslaught: humanizing the shopping experience.
Surf shops appear to have long ago, and quite organically, nailed the business model that brick-and-mortar retailers are only now turning to in an effort to survive the online onslaught: humanizing the shopping experience.
Surf shops, from the very beginning, have always been about much more than just commerce. Since Hobie, or Velzy, or Jack O'Neill—or whomever you want to credit with opening the first retail surfboard store—first hung a shingle and swung their doors open to the public, surfers have congregated at the surf shop. For decades, the surf shop has functioned as a "third place"—another space to gather and socialize outside of work (or school) and home. Even if we're not in the market for a big-ticket purchase like a new board, wetsuit, or $100 pair of trunks (when exactly did that become acceptable, by the way?), we're still in the shop once a week, buying wax, pawing through used boards, checking in with the staff about what the sandbars are doing. We're loyal. We bring our out-of-town friends with us, and maybe they buy a T-shirt or a hat. Maybe the shop cranks up a digital projector when the newest Kai Neville flick is released, and we head over with a six-pack. It's a community hub.
Of course, the anchor of the surf shop is still the surfboard. And unless you want to exclusively ride nothing but boards from the few giant manufacturers that have a global reach, and pay a fortune in shipping for the privilege, you're sure as hell not buying surfboards online. Even with the rise of computer shaping and mass-produced board models, we still insist on holding a board in our hands before buying it. After all, how can you really know a board will work without giving it the trusty old underarm heft used as a litmus test by surfers since the balsa days of yore? So down to the surf shop we go, wallet at the ready.
The surf-shop business model is exactly what high-paid consultants are prescribing to save non-surfy brick-and-mortar stores. Make your shop a community space. Create an environment that draws people in, even if they aren't interested in buying anything. Staff it with people who are experts in what you're selling. Carry products that can't easily be bought online. "People have to be matched up with the right equipment, especially if they're newcomers to surfing," one shop owner told me. "Once they buy their first board from us, they come back for everything else."
Nothing is Internet-proof. So much of surf culture has been changed by the never-ending cascade of data right there in our pockets and our desktops. But maybe, just maybe, the surf shop will hold out. And maybe it can be a beacon in the online-commerce darkness that has swallowed so many other places that we once held dear.