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Parade Ed - As a celebration of Skate Shop Day, and as a follow-up to the story we ran last year about the trials that Orchard and No Comply have been through in 2020, we wanted to speak with some stores in our newest market of Canada. It's a great insight, not only to the issues they've faced and the changes they've had to make but how skate stores can take from this situation and try and position themselves for a positive future. From our side, we're stoked that we've been able to play a role in helping stores grow their digital e-com business as it becomes more and more of a vital channel.
Futhermore, Parade will be donating a portion of our takings from Skate Shop Day (19th Feb) back to the store community.
As investigative journalism and think-pieces continue to give us deeper insights into the effect Covid-19 has had on the world to date, it can be difficult to remember just how quickly this took over our day-to-day lives, as well as our economy. Across Canada, as spring approached, what went from being one of many peripheral news stories we hear about every day to suddenly became the only story. As schools let out for spring break, restrictions went into place across regions, and stores, particularly small stores, had to close their doors, with no realistic idea about when they would reopen.
Governments at all levels and in various regions reacted differently, as did businesses. These were the in-between days, when no one was quite sure how serious this was, and what appropriate actions should be taken to keep communities safe and our way of life stable.
“I remember making the decision to close the store before we were forced to, before everyone knew the magnitude of it,” says Justin Allain, owner of Working Class in Moncton, New Brunswick. “We decided to close early just to be part of the solution. I remember thinking to myself, working late in the shop when we were closed, just wishing it was all just a catastrophic error on my part, having to close the store. In my mind, we weren’t going to survive being closed for an indefinite amount of time.”
Shop owners across Canada, accustomed to spending days with their employees, customers, and shop locals, now found themselves working long and quiet - but still busy -days alone.
“We closed our doors and then basically laid everyone off,” says Noel Wendt, owner of Tiki Room in Regina, Saskatchewan, "knowing that there was something in place for them to tap into, that being CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit). There was no foot traffic. We still had online, so I was still here packing and shipping things, but I was in the store for two months alone. It was really strange.”
Online sales quickly became the main focus for shop owners, both to keep their businesses afloat and to support the needs of their communities.
“We’ve been online for quite a few years,” says Noel, “so we were established in that way. By the time April hit and the weather was starting to change, we noticed a big uptick in online sales. Just the fact that stores were closed, a lot of people were purchasing online, and there was a big push for shopping local as well. A lot of people were buying with curbside pick-up, and that was really nice.”
“The shift was really quick and significant,” adds Justin. “I think the community realized early on that they needed to support their local businesses and services somehow, during this time where they couldn’t just go into a store. Online sales just started pouring in like they never had before. So it felt like we were actually doing something.
“We knew we had an advantage having a business with an online platform, which for a long time wasn’t really a big part of our business. I knew if we were going to keep the shop alive, it was through our online channels, so I doubled down on that. I’d always wanted to invest more in the online platform, and this was just the perfect opportunity. We redesigned our site, switched over to Shopify, and put the majority of our efforts into making that more of an extension of the shop. I went on social media heavy, more than I normally would, speaking and just reaching out to the community to voice my feelings and how we’d try to accommodate things.”
In many communities across Canada, the popularity of skateboarding was already on the rise, and the new social restrictions drove skateboarding’s stock climb up even steeper.
“At first I noticed it was a lot of people that used to skate coming in for a new board,” says Justin. “They pulled out their old dusty board and it sparked them. As the summer went on, the big one that I noticed was women. I don’t have a way to fully analyze the percentage, but it seemed that half the people coming in to get skateboards were girls or women.”
Noel echoes a similar change in his customer base: “Normally I would maybe sell 5 or 6 completes to girls in a whole year, but I’ve sold 5 completes to girls in one day this year, which was amazing.”
This surge in popularity doesn’t surprise Noel or Justin, and it makes a lot of sense given the ongoing limitations to our daily lives. It created an opportunity for people to experience one of the things many skateboarders appreciate the most about our favourite thing.
“It’s an activity you can do on your own, outside, and you’re not reliant on other people,” says Noel. “I’m assuming that’s been a huge factor. Honestly, CERB, too. A lot of young people that normally didn’t have that type of money now had it, so that definitely attributed to it.”
Justin adds: “It totally makes sense because all of the team activities weren’t allowed. There were restrictions in most communities. Skateboarding to me is the perfect thing to be able to go outside, have this little project to work on, something to look forward to, something to progress at, that you don’t need other people around to do. The nice thing about skateboarding is that you can do it wherever.”
The skateboarding craze of 2020 was not without its challenges, though. By summertime, product shortages were a reality at shops across the country.
“I’ve never seen anything like that as long as the shop has been open, and it’ll be 25 years in May,” says Noel.
“It was a rare moment of us not being able to supply the demand that was coming in,” says Justin. “It felt like everytime I was ordering product I was just tabbing through, trying to get everything I could into my cart and press order before it was gone. This is after shops started opening up again, and everyone was trying to get in on it. It felt straight up like all product was the most hype product and we were trying to get whatever we could.”
Different suppliers offered product to shops in different ways, and shop owners had to stay on their toes to keep stock on their shelves.
“There have been allocations, which can be good and bad,” says Noel. “A supplier will get X amount of product for the country and divvy it up so its perceived evenly. Other suppliers, some of them are late due to production issues overseas, which is fully understandable. Other suppliers are saying, hey, our product will be on our B2B up at this time on this day, go for it. I’ve gone on there and they’re sold out of products in 3 minutes. Half the stuff you’ve put in your cart is just gone by the time you try to check out. It’s been crazy.”
Product supply and demand has levelled out for now, but the experience of 2020 will continue to have an effect on how shops like Tiki Room and Working Class do their ordering.
“I’m sitting on more wood right now than I normally would be in May,” says Noel, “and I don’t feel bad about it, because I’m a little bit scared for this next year. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I’d rather be prepared.
Shop owners have to wonder though how much the increase in skateboard sales will continue, when social restrictions start to lift eventually. Will 2020 be just a blip on the skateboard popularity meter, or will it continue to grow?
“I think we are in a good spot for the next few years for skateboarding to keep growing,” says Justin. “The Olympics are coming up and that will introduce skateboarding to a whole new generation of people, and legitimize it to older generations that maybe saw it in a different way. We’re going to think about what we can do at a local level, depending how the restrictions and regulations are here. The obvious choice right now is just to keep interacting with the community through virtual events and social media. Hopefully our community will get to a point where we can start doing things together again. I’d like to do events that support specific user groups, to encourage people that might be timid about joining the masses.”
As shopping increasingly becomes an online practice for more people, and one online store to the next is eerily similar, what will set the local shop apart from bigger, faceless online retailers? What is the role of a local skateboard shop in an increasingly digital world? Community involvement and advocacy for skateboarding remain an integral and accepted part of the life of most skate shop owners, whether they make that known to their customers or not. If there’s someone in your community working on getting skateparks built, it’s a safe bet that it’s your local shop owner.
“Right now, a group of us are in the process of trying to get insurance and find a space for a new indoor park here in Regina,” says Noel. Canada has had surprisingly few long-lasting indoor parks over the years, despite long, cold, and snowy winters from coast to coast. Regina was an exception, having maintained an indoor park for 17 years, before redevelopment forced its doors closed for good in 2015, making winters in the Queen City feel even longer for skaters.
In Moncton, similar work is being done to create more spaces for skateboarding.
“We’ve always had more users than facilities here, and that was before all of this,” says Justin. “In Moncton, we actually have two park projects slated for 2021 that we worked on with the city. Both are supposed to break ground this year. It’s really great timing. I feel like when I opened the shop, a little over 5 years ago, skateboarding was on a bit more of a down-swing, down in a valley, and it’s almost odd now to see it be this popular again because I haven’t seen it in the lifetime of the shop. It was really just the core user group that was involved, and now it’s a whole range of people. We have our work cut out for us in supporting everyone, but we’re up for the challenge. It’s going to be fun and refreshing.”
While challenges will always be there for independent retailers, if they’re in it for the good of their community, work hard, and get creative, they should still be able to thrive in whatever our future ends up looking like.
"If you’re there for the right reasons, if you’re doing great things for your community, people recognize that, and they’re more likely to step up and support you,” says Justin. “That was a big take away for me, and something that really made me feel good about what I’ve been doing over the years, and reinforced why I do it.”
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