Specifically: Choices, in Skate Shops. Choices of product categories, brands, and price points. The point that he made? Any good, solid, legit skateboard shop will carry many, many choices of product categories, brands, and price points. Apparently, this is not happening. I did some poking about, to check it all out for myself.
I did a little experiment a couple weeks ago. I went over to Arbor's website, and scoped out their dealer locator... as their dealer locator is one of the biggest around on the internet, as far as 'niche products' go. What I wanted to do was to call a bunch of shops, and gauge how diverse their product lines really are. That would give me a very real indicator of who has what sort of market share these days, as well as how much 'niche skateboarding' has penetrated the average shops' consciousness.
I probably called about 250 skate shops or so. Of which, a dozen or so were Zumiez (read about the problem of Zumiez) locations, mind you. What did I find...? That the huge majority of these shops carry Sector Nine and Arbor, almost exclusively. Only a tiny handful carried other brands, such as Ladera, Gravity, GFH, and Loaded. And only a very, very rare few brick-and-mortars were fully stocked with a whole spectrum of brands and choices, reflecting what's currently available in the market, today.
My next logical stop was to compare and contrast this with about fifteen online retailers that I'd heard of. One of those, again, was Zumiez... which, of course, carried Sector Nine exclusively (Arbor was conspicuously absent from Zumiez' website, oddly enough). But, the rest of the 14 that I checked out? Probably carried at least 20 brands apiece. In most cases, even more than that. What a contrast to the brick-and-mortars that I'd surveyed earlier. It was like night and day.
My last task, was to survey as many manufacturers, retailers, e-tailers, and media magnates as possible, and ask them what they thought the current sales split was, between niche products sold online, vs. niche products sold through traditional, brick-and-mortar skate shops. Here, of course, I got a pretty wide spread of opinions, data, matrixes, theories, et cetera. But, the weighted average seemed to be that it was currently about a 30%-70% split, in favor of brick-and-mortars. Which, at first glance, is great for brick-and-mortars. Far better than I'd actually expected.
But then, we have a follow-up fact: E-tailed "niche products" are growing somewhere around 5%-10% a year. While the b&m's are either flat, or losing ground. Several b&m's- as we saw a few topics back- freely admit that their customers are moving to online buying, even when the playing fields are almost exactly the same in terms of pricing, and selection. When the playing field is clearly lopsided? Well, I'd guess that in those instances, the problem might be even worse.
"Do you think that the massive product selection that the www offers, has something to do with that...?", I asked several people. The answer was almost exactly the same, regardless of who I was asking. "Oh, absolutely. No doubt about it."
The problem seems to be that, in a world where many shops are offering a very limited selection of products (for whatever reasons, and they do seem to vary quite a bit from shop to shop)... and, at prices that are perceived as being unnecessarily high (the MSRP problem (read about it) might be contributing to that one, as do local sales taxes, etc.)... of course, the trend is gonna be customers beginning a mass migration to online e-tailers. If you can get a much more diverse selection online, and at better prices... well, who the hell wouldn't?! Even I'm guilty of that one, albeit for a very extreme version of this reason: There isn't a "core" shop within miles of me that even stocks the sort of stuff that I skate these days! So, for me, it's not a choice at all. It's a clear necessity.
The other problem that a lot of blokes pointed out, was that: Once customers begin shopping online, and get comfortable with it... well, it becomes very difficult to get them to go back to a brick-and-mortar.
"They get spoiled by the selection and the pricing, and the bar gets raised a whole lot", I theorized.
"Yup", everyone confirmed. Even the guy that fixes forklifts at my day job confirmed that one. That's just common knowledge, I guess. Except to techno-fearing dinosaurs (like me).
The challenge for shops, then, will be: To diversify their offerings, while pressuring manufacturers to get that MSRP problem nailed down. But, it doesn't end there. The last hurdle is the Question of Customer Care (read more...).
Bud Stratford is a skateboarding business writer with strong roots and ties in the skateboarding industry. Feel free to contact Bud at firstname.lastname@example.org.