Ideas: The FTJ Skate Shop Coalition
Saturday, January 27th, 2018
By Bud Stratford
Let me start here: in no way, shape, or form is this piece meant to be any sort of slight against the good, hard work that the BRA (Board Retailers Association) is doing, and has been doing for years. Quite the opposite, actually: I would wholeheartedly encourage any independent, brick-and-mortar retailer to drop them a line, and launch a friendly inquiry into their program. They’ve always been super cool to me the few times that I’ve called; membership starts at something like $99 per year (the last time I checked); and they offer some really great benefits that more than offset that paltry membership fee. That membership fee might actually pay for itself pretty quickly, a few times over, if you fully take advantage of everything that they have to offer. Best of all: it just takes one phone call, or one email to touch base with them; that’s not too much time or energy to spend, is it, to at least see what they have on the table? So, no; this is not a “bash BRA” sort of piece. Not one bit.
My intent, however, is this: as effective and as useful as BRA might well be, the fact is that they still fundamentally represent retailers all across the spectrum of the action sports industry. Everything from skate, to surf, to snow sports, to wakeboarding and skimboarding are all lumped in together under the BRA banner. Again: that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not criticizing. Just stating simple facts, folks.
The skateboard industry does, however, have some very pertinent and persistent issues that are specific to our industry, and to our industry alone. It’s those specific, unique issues that we need to find an immediate, alternative solution for. The skate retailers of the world, I think, deserve a “By us, for us” coalition that serves their own needs, wants, and desires. Something that might well aid and abet BRA in their work, and that would not directly “compete” with them for membership dollars… but rather, a coalition that might be flexible and responsive enough to benefit skate retailers, and their pressing issues, a little more immediately than BRA might be able to muster.
“Simple answers are always the best answers”; that’s one of my many mantras. The answer to me seems to be pretty simple, and extremely utilitarian: a Free-To-Join (FTJ, from here on out) Skateshop Coalition. Or, Union. Or, whatever.
Now, this is an idea that I’ve been playing around with for at least eight or nine years now. So far, it hasn’t gained much traction. Until recently. The sad fact is that skate retailers probably haven’t really needed it until now. Or rather: they perceived that they didn’t really need it until the retail landscape got so depressingly glum, and so outwardly threatening, that now they suddenly seem to be all ears every time I mention it. Maybe necessity really is the mother of invention. Maybe the time has simply come where retailers can see the use in it, and the immediate benefits such an informal (but highly effective) association might bring to the plate.
Organizing such a thing is more than simple enough. Just call every skate shop in the country, and ask them if they want to join up. No fees required; you’re more than welcome to keep your hard-earned money, buddy. We don’t want it, and we don’t really need it. Not for our purposes. All we need are e-mail addresses for the shop owners and/or managers, all across the continent. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.
Now, at this point an army of immediate naysayers will probably materialize that will claim that this is absolutely impossible to do. That calling every skate shop around the country is a herculean task that nobody could ever accomplish single-handedly. Well, guess what? I just called 100 shops… last Thursday. Granted, about forty of them were out of business. Those calls, unfortunately, went pretty fast.
But, of the sixty shops (or so) that answered? I got the e-mails. I’m here to tell you: it’s not only possible. It’s actually remarkably easy.
Once we compile the database… what do we do with it? Simple: we send the compiled list to every skate shop in the country. So every shop owner in this country, knows who every other skate shop owner in this country is; the name of their shop; their e-mail contact; and where they’re located, geographically. Again, this isn’t rocket science; this is simple data management at work. But knowledge is power. And this compiled spreadsheet of retailer contacts nationwide could prove to be a very useful, and very powerful tool indeed.
What kinds of things could we do with such a handy tool? Well, here’s a few ideas:
– Mission One: Be Heard. If I were in charge of this union, I would have elections to elect one representative for all these shops, and march his (or her) representative ass straight into one of IASC’s roundtable discussions; declare that I am Bobby Blowhard; that I hold in my hand a database of five hundred, maybe six hundred independent, brick-and-mortar retailers nationwide; present that list, (so they know you aren’t lyin’ to them); and that we all have a few demands that we’d like to put on the table. I suspect that will perk their ears up pretty quickly. Mission One, duly accomplished.
– Mission Two, The Next IASC Initiative. I’ll write a separate essay on that; I don’t wanna bore you with too many words today. But, this initiative will be one of IASC’s wide-ranging, populist initiatives aimed at “starting a dialog” (they love that shit), and “steering the conversation”. The cornerstone of this initiative should be this simple statement, repeated ad nauseum across our industry, and through all our media: “The independent, brick-and-mortar skate retailer is a critical industry infrastructure that must be supported at all costs to maintain the healthy, long-term, local outreach and engagement efforts that have made skateboarding the exciting, engaging, empowering, inspiring, and all-inclusive pastime that it is today”. This initiative will also address…
– Mission Three, Exclusive Products. Products that are only available at independent, brick-and-mortar retailers. Something that maintains these brands’ “core credibility”, and also drives buying foot traffic straight into the independent, brick-and-mortar skate shop. Products that aren’t available in every Zumiez, or spread thick everywhere all over the goddamned internet. This is a true win-win-win for everyone. At least, it could be if the cards were played right, and played well.
– Mission Four: Address DTC (“Direct To Consumer”) and MSRP’s (“Manufacturers Suggested Retail Prices”). These two issues go hand-in-hand; you really cannot discuss one without taking up the other. If your brand feels like they need to go DTC, then fine; just make sure you’re adhering to your own MSRP’s, so that we, the independent, brick-and-mortar skate shops of the world, don’t have to compete with you on pricing, and pricing alone. If you want a truly local representative of your brand that will represent you, and represent you tirelessly in the local skate community? Then make margins liveable again, and match my retail prices so that I can eat some Best Ramen tonight, and keep my lights on at the shop.
– Mission Five: Get Shops Working Together Toward Common Goals. Whether it’s jointly hosting grassroots, all-inclusive, free-to-everyone skate events (something that truly benefits all skate shops, and the entirety of skateboarding); building buying cooperatives (to get better wholesale pricing through bulk purchasing); or just sharing best retail practices between each other… there’s a lot that shops could do for themselves, if they would resolve to work together as a united front, and as a cohesive community.
Every skateboard brand that ever “made it big”… that is, became nationally recognized, branding powerhouses… started at the local, independent, brick-and-mortar skate shop level. The brands needed those shops to support them, and to help them grow within their market. They needed the support of the infrastructure to survive… and all these Facebook Brands are gonna have a really hard time when they finally figure out that it’s still true, today. Without the independent skateshop network, brands simply do not grow to national recognition. Sure, they might get “liked” or “shared” until the cows come home… but they still might never sell. Because to sell, you need a buying market. Not just “likes” and “shares”.
The brands that have endured over the years… decades, even… never really abandoned the local, independent, brick-and-mortar skate shop. Or at least, they shouldn’t have; if they did, it’s their loss. It’s that “local, core credibility” thing, all over again; believe it or not, that still matters. Your support of local scenes and local events matters. Your ability to engage, empower, and inspire skaters in local communities matters. You cannot do all of that outreach, virtually, via social media. Social media may be an enabler in the equation… but is not, and it never will be, the end-all and be-all of generating grassroots excitement for skateboarding. One-on-one, interpersonal enthusiasm exchange still wins every time.
The independent, core, brick-and-mortar skate shop still has a massively huge role to play in that paradigm. If our industry chooses to not see, accept, and support that basic premise, then all hope is forever lost for the future of our pastime. Every time a shop goes out of business, a scene dies. And we wonder why skateboarding is so “blah” right now. Here’s the easy answer: too many failed shops. That’s the correlation. If you don’t see that simple, sad relationship between a critical mass of micro-level skateshop failures, and macro-level industry failure, then that’s your problem, buddy. Not mine.
These are the challenges. The challenge to skate shops is to organize themselves, and to do it sooner than later. The challenge to IASC is to listen to those demands, and to take some sort of substantive action toward making the initiatives happen. As The Media, I would be more than happy to help both sides of the fence in these endeavors; that’s my challenge and my responsibility, and I take my responsibility seriously. But it has to be done; failure is not an option. Future generations of skaters (or non-skaters, take your pick) hang in the balance between what we shoulda done, what we coulda done, and what we’re prepared to stand our smart f’n asses up, and actually do. Let’s make it happen. Today. Or we’ll suffer the consequences of our inaction tomorrow.
Best regards, as always-