Can We All Please Just Calm Down? A Business Perspective on Blanks

I can’t believe I’m doing this. Oh lord, how many people am I going to piss off this time? I mean, I could just lay low and let the slings and arrows fly back and forth but no, I just don’t have the intestinal fortitude to keep my mouth shut. Instead, there’s this almost pathological need to try and reduce a highly controversial and frankly emotional issue to a series of business bullet points. I guess I’ll console myself by remembering that I’m not going to say anything here I didn’t say some years ago in Market Watch.

I might as well get it over with. Maybe it will help me sleep at night.
For those of you who live at the United States Air Force weather station three miles from the South Pole (and don’t have an internet connection), IASC and the leading skate hard goods companies created and wrote the 32 page insert called “Under Fire” that you all received in the recent issue of Transworld Business.
My hats off to them for achieving a level of efficiency and cooperation that, honestly, I wasn’t sure they could pull off. And they succeeded in highlighting what I think most of us would agree are the major issues confronting the skateboard hard goods industry today and identifying some action items. What I’m going to do is review those issues and then go a little deeper into the business implications of what they are saying and advocating.
Remember that “Under Fire” is a consensus document. That is, not everybody who was represented in it would agree with everything everybody else said. Still, I thought there was remarkable consistency across a number of key points.
And the Key Points Are……
The bedrock of the whole argument is that pros are the foundation on which skateboarding is built and that their influence is key to getting kids excited about and continually committed to skating. Okay, I agree that pros have big influence on the core of skating. How much? As much as they use to? Don’t know.
The next point is that the brands’ marketing activities, including their support of pros, is critical to the health of skateboarding. If skaters are buying blanks and shop decks (I consider those separate categories, and will discuss why later) rather than the more expensive branded decks, the brands can’t afford the same marketing programs. That’s simply a financial equation. Can’t argue with it.
And, the argument continues, if professional skateboarding and the associated promotional activities aren’t strong and can’t be continued at the same level skating, as an activity, a lifestyle, an attitude, and as a business is fated to decline.
Well that would suck if it actually happened. What do the brands want to do about it?
First, they acknowledge that it’s time to introduce some technology and innovation into skate hard goods to give skaters a reason to buy the more expensive branded decks. We’re already seeing some of that start to happen and you’ll see more. But of course it’s not an instant solution. The industry has spent a lot of time, effort and marketing dollars to convince skaters that a skateboard is a seven to nine ply laminated product made of hard rock Canadian maple. Skaters seem to believe it. Getting some of them to pay more for something that ain’t quite that, even when the benefits seem obvious, will take some persuasion and some time.
I guess where we’d like to be in where, for example, golf is. You know- they come out with “new and improved” models every year and people buy them even though there’s nothing wrong with their old stuff and the new stuff is expensive and doesn’t necessarily make a difference in their game. Or like in automobiles- where the newest technology appears in the top of the line product and works its way down year by year.
This will require, however, that the pros be in lock step with their sponsors.
Second, they recognize the shop’s need for a better margin on branded hard goods. What are they going to do about it? Somewhere between lots and nothing. There are brands already offering better margins and some that just don’t want to compete at the lower price point. There is, by the way, nothing wrong with a business decision to not offer a less expensive product if that’s what your market position and targeted customers require.
“Under Fire” is only “the first step in IASC’s plan to continue educating and informing the industry about this issue.” There will be additional steps in the program. The supplement ends with a call to action suggesting some tactics that all the industry’s stakeholders should consider.
So, Where Are We Exactly?
You remember all this from a few years ago. Skating takes off, skate parks start to sprout like mushrooms, brands can’t keep up with demand. Everybody’s happy. Then the market gets big enough for the foreign, low cost manufacturers to notice it. “Hey, we can make this cheap,” they say. They’re right. The usual startup problems. Problems resolved. Eight bucks landed cost for a blank skateboard if you’re buying in quantity. Maybe less. Consumers get the idea that the quality of blanks and shop decks are the same as the branded deck. Big price difference. Product wears out. No fundamental change in the product in 20 years or so. Percentage margins decline. Worse, total margin dollars earned on a deck decline. Fifty to seventy percent of deck sales world wide (you pick the number you believe) are blanks and shop decks.
So after a period of rapid growth, the industry matured a bit and started to consolidate. Product becomes a bit of a commodity, price and margin pressures, volume matters, etc. Look, I’m not going to go through this for the 14th time. All the usual things happen that happen to any industry in its life cycle. Big surprise. It’s so predictable it’s boring.
Anyway, wherever you go, there you’ll be. And here we are. There are some business issues implicit in Under Fire that it didn’t specifically discuss. Well, you can’t blame them- if they had, you’d be confusing this thing with the telephone book. But me, I always wanted to write a phone book.
Why People Buy
As far as I know, there are three things that motivate people to purchase a product. They are advertising and promotion, product features, and price. It appears, right at the moment, that advertising and promotion isn’t working too well for branded skate decks. If it was, there would be no Under Fire and I wouldn’t be writing this. Which, frankly, would be fine with me. There must be a better use for a Saturday morning. I mean, I could be doing yard work. Never mind. I’ll write and send the two teenagers out. Same to you kids. No, you can’t play with the chain saw.
New product features? Well, uhh, there really haven’t been any that have caught on, though hopefully that’s starting to change.
That, I am afraid, leaves us where we really, really didn’t want to be. At price. Let us then discuss the elasticity of demand with regards to price. If the blank/shop deck is, say $20.00 and the branded deck is $50.00 and you’re a fourteen year old without a lot of money or the a parent of a fourteen year old who knows you’re going to be back in this shop in a month, that’s a big difference. Apparently, too big a difference for a lot of people.
How big a difference wouldn’t be too much? Judging from the discussion of the demand for the $35 branded deck in the sacred supplement, the retailers seem to think that’s a price point at which they can sell branded product. But would $40 also work? Or does it need to be $30? What kind of and how much advertising and promotion and product innovation can change that?
We don’t really know. Or at least I don’t know. Actually, I guess I do know the answer. The answer is, “It depends.” Isn’t that helpful? It depends on the brand. It depends on the shop. It depends on buyer motivation. Has anybody out there rigorously asked 500 skaters, or even 100, why they bought the skate board they bought?
Right at the moment, if we asked a bunch of skaters, we know quite a few of them (fifty to seventy percent I suppose) would say that price was a big factor, as is their belief in a lack of meaningful product differentiation. More troubling, I suspect that if we asked our questions just right, we’d find that many are indeed influenced by the pros- but that doesn’t translate into buying a branded deck.  Finally I’d expect to hear, “I support my local skate scene.” And that brings us to our next topic.
Blanks and Shop Decks
Let’s define a blank as a skate board either with no graphics at all or with graphics with absolutely no legitimate connection to skateboarding. There will always be a market for both. Some percentage of the market, especially lacking any real or perceived product differentiation, will always want to buy the cheapest thing they can. It’s true in any market. And somebody will always supply it.
I’d like to say that again- If the customer wants it, somebody will always supply it. Lacking a change in skater perception and motivation, every store and shop that stops selling blanks creates an opportunity for somebody who does sell them.
The non branded board with graphics has been the province of the larger chains and sporting goods stores, often as completes. There’s no possible reason for a “real” skate retailer to carry them, if only because they’d make more money on their shop decks as well as promoting their shop. They are going to be around, and I imagine the quality has improved.
Shop decks, though, are a different story. What I hear, and what I suspect is often true, is that a shop deck, in a good shop’s neighborhood, is essentially a lower priced substitute for the traditional branded product. It offers a certain customer the same sense of legitimacy, belonging, and connection to skating and the skate culture that they use to get from the branded pro deck. And it’s cheaper. And shops make good money on them. I wonder how many shops put out their own pro models. Shop decks are not going to disappear. In fact, they may get stronger. And as I said, I don’t think the success of shop decks is just a price issue.
Maybe, with the right technology and promotion by the brands, shop decks can become the entry level boards.
It would be interesting to collect some good information on sales of shop versus blank decks as I’ve defined them. They really are separate categories, but they’ve been lumped together.
The Role of the Pro
I suspect there are some people who feel no need to collect any data on buyer motivation. They believe they already know the answer they’ll get back. In Under Fire, most of the brands say their companies are rider driven, or words to that affect. Always have been, always will be. That’s a valid statement of principal, but it may not be an adequate basis for a business, judging from the decline in the sale of full price branded decks.
I would not try to push a comparison between snowboarding and skateboarding too far. But I will point out that snowboarding use to have a pile of pros and sell lots of pro decks. Once the industry matured, that started to decline until today, the number of pro snowboards sold is vanishingly small.
That doesn’t mean that the pros don’t still influence snowboarders. But what the snow board brands finally figured out was that the best pros were worth whatever you had to pay them. The ones that you just flowed product to and maybe offered contest and photo incentives were influential at their local scene. All the riders in the middle? Not worth what they cost was the decision, and they are gone.
By the way, my definition of the best pro is not just the one who’s the best skater. It’s also the one who’s personable, responsible, professional, and shows up on time.
The other things that happened, in surf especially, is that the apparel and footwear companies picked up most of the team/pro sponsorship and other marketing expenses.
Is this how skateboarding will evolve? I don’t know. Skate hard goods companies have historically been the bedrock of skate boarding.   Certainly shoe and apparel companies are spending plenty of money supporting skateboarding.
So here’s the marketing matrix. Some skaters are influenced by the pros and buy pro decks. Some are influenced and buy the pro’s brand. Some are influenced, but still buy what’s cheap, maybe spending their money on shoes and clothing again. Some are influenced and would like to buy the pro deck but can’t afford it. Some don’t give a shit and buy whatever is cheapest as long as they perceive the quality is equivalent.
Well, we’re back to buyer motivation. Let’s talk to those few hundred skaters and figure out just where the industry (and individual companies) should be spending its advertising and promotional dollars.
Distribution
Everybody gets together to discuss distribution, tries to blame the other guy for the so called mess, and nothing changes. I’ve seen it too often, and I’m not talking just about skateboarding. Anybody who runs a company in the action sports business sits at their desk and ponders distribution every day. They know who they can absolutely sell to. They know who they should definitely not sell to right now. They try and figure out when and what and how much they can sell to all the accounts that don’t fit neatly in the “sell” or “don’t sell” categories. They ask themselves, “What will other accounts think? How will it impact the brand? How much money can I make? What’s the potential for growth? Is it consistent with my brand’s market position and brand strategy?”
So distribution evolves as companies grow and brands change. It just does. There is no mess. There’s just normal industry/brand/retailer evolution. Do what’s right for your business given this inevitable fact. Don’t look for somebody to blame, and don’t wait for it to be fixed.
Industry Evolution
Industries change. They just do. Companies adapt or die.  The customer always gets what they want. You can influence them, but not always as much as you’d like. An industry succeeds when the companies that make it up compete. Part of that competition is always innovation. Some do well, some don’t. But the industry itself progresses; sometimes kicking and screaming, but it progresses. I guarantee that every company will do what it perceives to be in its own best interest.
I went to the Park and Recreation Convention here in Seattle last October. Basically this is the convention of people who sell stuff to playgrounds, and I can only say that I wish I was a kid again. Lots of cool stuff that’s beyond what I could have imagined when I was of an age to use it.
I saw Per Welinder from Blitz there, manning the IASC booth and promoting skate parks. I walked around a corner and came face to face with Beau Brown, formerly of Sole Tech and now COO of Radius 8, a seller of portable skate ramps. His face was all aglow from the huge number of business opportunities he thought he had at the show. As we talked, a guy from some municipality came up and, apparently amazed to learn that portable ramps existed, asked how quickly he could get some. He guessed at the price, kind of suggesting that one might cost $3,000 as I recall. Beau, who seems to have a nasty ethical streak he needs to get over, told him that no, the one he was looking at was only $300. The guy scurried away to get his boss.