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As mass lockdowns began in March due to the pandemic, many of us started to realize the fragility of the local businesses we rely on. Larger than just skateboarding, it’s the restaurants, bars, boutiques, delis, and parts of our local ecosystems that felt fragile. Buoying on an idea started by foodies in Connecticut, there was a push to buy gift cards from skate shops as a way to infuse them with some cash and “pay it forward.” Mike Gigliotti from Lotties in Los Angeles came up with a custom shop shirt program, followed by Deluxe’s Sketchy Skateshop Appreciation program with art donated by Mark Gonzales. As business shifted to online, shops started to see a retail boom due to a new interest in skateboarding worldwide.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the Olympics driving the surge but the lack of them or any organized sports at all. For those entrenched in skating, it’s easy to forget getting your first complete and fucking around in front of your house for hours, getting acclimated to pushing, turning, and eventually slamming. As a solo activity, skateboarding is rife for lockdown kids who aren’t glued to Twitch. As summer started to hit, regulations eased and some shops were able to open in a limited capacity. But whoops, the boom left the shelves dry.
With production slowed and prebooks delayed due to COVID-19, skateboarding’s supply chain and lack of wood shops went from unchecked bumps and bruises to open wounds. The scarcity of product caused shops to be a bit more liberal in their curation and even caused some skaters to consider riding different shapes, boards and truck widths, as well as wheel sizes. Some even joked that the lack of wide boards could lead to a 1999-esque sub 8” renaissance. Ridiculous or plausible? Remember, this is skateboarding, trends are rarely based on logic.
As cornerstone community shops and highly visible brands, Orchard (Boston, MA) and No Comply (Austin, TX) have a large stake in skateboarding that they’ve grown for years. Both are core shops with a lot to lose due to the pandemic and loss of sales. Equally as important, they’re shops that are invested in growing the community of skateboarding and have had to pivot more than their retail models in order to operate. Losing the interaction is paramount in both not being able to gather, but also offering valuable insights to that person buying their first board. If your first board was some trash from a big box chain, you intensely understand how essential quality is to experience.
I spoke to Armin Bachman (Orchard) and Elias Bingham (No Comply) about their experiences as shop owners over the last six months and how they’ve managed to stay hopeful, operational, and engaged.
Elias Bingham - Going into 2020 we had a lot lined up. Spring Break is big for us, South By Southwest, we had a shoe collaboration coming out, a Thrasher collaboration and then all of a sudden everything is cancelled, we’re shut down and our staff went from 12 to three. We were furloughed so we paid everyone but there was a reality that we could go out of business.
The industry has really helped out immediately and offered support. Brands are tagging shops more that carry their products - just doing little things to get the word out. We started to have everything in our inventory on the site and started to get really busy with online sales. I applied for the PPP loans, called up credit card companies to get extensions and debt forgiveness because I had no idea what was going to happen. The PPP was at least a bridge until the reopening and a way to pay furloughed employees.
Armin Bachman - We had been at our old location for ten years and the previous landlord wanted to sell the building and wasn’t fixing shit. The building was falling apart. The new owners bought it and the roof was literally rotting out. We got a letter from their lawyer saying we had to be out of the space but it ended up being for the better. We started looking for a spot immediately and had one lined up in Central Square in Cambridge. Boston's tricky in that it doesn't have that many great retail zones and it’s not super connected public transit wise. The neighborhoods we want to be in are too expensive.
We were set to have that space and were sorting out the terms in early March, then I pulled the plug - we really dodged a bullet with that. We had to be out of the Allston location in April, so I threw a Hail Mary at this developer dude who we’ve done some events with. He doesn’t skate but he’s down for it, he personally smuggled 48 completes into Addis Ababa in Ethiopia! He hooked us up with a 600-square-foot retail space, which is obviously smaller than our old location, and across the street is a 4,500-square-foot garage we had access to. That place is being torn down in a year but for now, we moved into the warehouse and with both spaces combined, we’re paying a lot less in rent. We got so lucky that we were able to get a temporary spot just to see where the dust settles.
We actually went into the year with more stock so we were in a good position but Ventures are always hard to get in certain sizes, boards are hard to get in the best selling sizes, and with only a handful of wood shops that are slowed down due to COVID-19, it’s really tough. The brands are also limiting what you can buy so that they can distribute product to more shops - spread the love. It’s tricky because we’ve always been able to move more volume than most shops. Boston is basically New York expensive but lowering our overheads let us keep some gas in the tank.
It's tough as fuck to get product, man. It takes five times as much work to get not as much product as you need and not nearly as diverse amount of product as you want. I don't want to make any compromises and carry some wack shit just because we need inventory.
The Online Pivot
Elias - Online is an entirely separate business - synching up the inventory and backend, photography, processing orders, constantly updating the site. It’s a lot of time and requires devoted roles. We wanted to expand to another physical store, but for now, we’re treating online as that, you know? Even with more sales, online is still only about 7% of our business and we’re focused on growing it. We are finding that now that we’re open we’re having a lot more random families coming to the store. DMs are the other thing because people treat a store as a person - if you’re not looking at it all the time you fall behind so quickly and customer service is so important. It’s really difficult to stay on top of it.
We took on a lot of brands that we didn't normally carry and were seeing people buying different set ups based on availability - maybe they size down based on what trucks we have etc. We have some longboards in the back for those types of customers and we try to push them towards cruisers but fuck, do we put that on the site? I don’t want to put us in the dirt, we have to draw the line somewhere. Core skateboarding is always our focus.
Armin - Online has definitely been nice. You wake up and feel like you made a few hundred dollars while you were sleeping and that helps. I felt like the site needed an aesthetic overhaul so we hired someone full time to manage that and handle logistics which has really helped. The main shop manager has now become a warehouse manager - it’s a whole new procedure. We’re learning on the fly. And the emails and DMs… so many fucking emails! [laughs] The hardest part is that when a new skater comes into the shop we were able to walk them through everything and set them up properly, now it’s all electronic or phone calls appointments with mom. We’re just trying to spell things out and make the online experience better with the same level of service you’d get from a physical store. That doesn’t happen overnight.
We're making way fewer apparel sales. Traditionally, on September 1st, we have a mega bump in sales. This summer and into fall has been so steady but we didn’t see that uptick and we’re not physically open. That’s hurting us, but we’re finding ways to stay connected, the prebooks are coming in and we’re open to carrying more diverse brands. What we don’t have is those normie college kids that just wander in looking for a longboard. They just aren’t finding our website and the cruisers we might be able to sell them.
Innovation and Community
Elias - We organized a BLM march around Go Skateboarding Day that worked surprisingly well with no real issues. We’ve been doing rare sneaker raffles to benefit the local food bank, where people donate $25 and they get an entry. We did three of those and we've raised almost $40,000. We’ve helped with voter registration and doing custom art - we’re really trying to stay a part of the community.
We're working on doing the chat window but someone's got to be there doing it. Who’s running that at midnight when someone wants to know what size trucks to buy? We’re selling an insane amount of completes now and we’re trying to build out the recommendations. The game’s really changed in just a few months. We’re limiting how many people come in the shop and are able to assemble completes outside so we can have some interaction. We also build completes for the store and online and label them beginner and intermediate… just trying to provide what we can.
Armin - My wife and I have a vintage business as well and we’ll come across skate stuff when we’re out picking and you have homies who collect… that guy who got divorced and had to unload some old boards. We started to build up an archive of things that people had stories about and had a real attachment to. That’s why we started ‘Overripe’ on the site, to start to push vintage skate stuff out. There’s a real geek aspect to it. We’re fans of so many eras and styles of skating so it’s just rad to get that stuff out of boxes and into the hands of people who care about it. The collectibles have done really well so far - a lot of people came out of the woodwork to see what we had. Going forward, we’re going to just keep doing little drops. We’re also thinking of starting to build out a vinyl component too - records that have a connection to skating - as well as an Orchard video boxset.
We got a van, even registering a commercial vehicle has been an insane process, once we get that going we can do weekend deliveries as well as give the keys to the riders to go to Albany and film - just invest in the crew.
Elias - With kids not being able to play team sports and with the Olympics coming, I really feel like this boom is sustainable.
Armin - Stay patient and plan for what you can.
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