How to Survive a Downturn And Take Advantage of the Opportunity It Represents

In previous articles, going back to when skating was growing like the proverbial weed, I’ve talked about issues related to a downturn. Things like expense control, if you should sell your business, characteristics of a maturing market, cash flow management, the impact of a recession, and the potential impact of foreign competition. Given the continuing, current conditions in the skateboarding industry, it’s kind of time, and probably well past time, to bring it all together.

 
This isn’t necessarily a completely cheery subject-companies do go out of business in downturns- and I’ve learned over the years that the practice of shooting the messenger is alive and well. Still, I know from my consulting practice that denial and perseverance in a period of change is what gets good companies in trouble in the first place. Getting them to recognize that continuing to do what they’ve always done successfully when the business climate changes is more of a risk than doing new and apparently risky things is hard.
 
This is important, so I guess I can deal with a little hate email.
 
The Good News
 
Let’s recognize that downturns are opportunities for companies with sound competitive market positions and strong balance sheets. As weaker competitors go into crisis mode and spend all their time managing cash, cutting back on commitments, not delivering well and scurrying around looking for money, solid player can, and will, and do, move in.
 
That’s not to suggest that the soft market isn’t impacting even solid brands. But at the least they can continue their ad campaigns, deliver product when promised, pay their team on time and service customers better than their weak competitors. If others can’t, that puts you ahead of the game even in a soft market.
 
Now consider taking the next step. If you have confidence in your market position and branding, this might be the time- when your weaker competitors can’t respond effectively- to take that next step. Come out with that new product. Introduce new POPs. Go aggressively after those retailers who’ve been carrying other brands instead of yours.
 
Established skate retailers have for sure taken a sales hit- especially in hard goods. But some established stores have watched competing newcomer retailers disappear, and they’ve found some better deals available from brands.
 
Do I know that from careful market research and talking to dozens of retailer? Nah. I’ve talked to a few, and what I’ve heard has been pretty consistent. But this is what happens in every industry after a big growth spurt. As the industry matures, margins decline (temporarily or permanently), retailers have more power, consumers get smarter (so marketing may not work as well), product differentiation gets harder to come by, overcapacity can be a problem, competition shifts to a greater emphasis on cost and service, and international competition increases.
 
Aside from that, nothing changes.
 
These structural changes are different from industry to industry, but they are always present. Think of how each can be applied to skateboarding and I think you’ll see my point.
 
Retailers, even if they are skate focused, are usually not just skate retailers. They also sell surf, snow, bike and/or others in some combination. Surf, of course, is hot right now and taking up some of the slack of a soft skate market for retailers.
 
The decline in skate hard goods sales isn’t as traumatic for retailers as it would be if those were high gross margin items. Obviously, any sale with any positive margin contributes to overhead. But if you could pick where sales were going to suffer, you’d pick the lower margin items. In skate, that’s typically hard goods. Besides being diversified across sports, retailers have the added advantage of selling shoes and clothing to people who don’t participate in the sport but still needs soft goods.
 
Bad News
 
Companies are almost organic is their single-minded focus on survival. Even when any objective analysis of risk versus potential return suggests they should go quietly away, they don’t. Well, people who are pessimists don’t start businesses or rise to lead them so maybe that’s inevitable.
 
If you’ve got a few spare minutes, go to the Harvard Business Review web site (www.hbr.com) and buy a copy of an article in the July 2003 issue called “Delusions of Success; How Optimism Undermines Executives’ Decisions.” What the authors say is that “In planning major initiatives, executives routinely exaggerate the benefits and discount the costs, setting themselves up for failure.” That consistent with what I’ve seen in my practice.
 
During the kind of fast growth and seemingly endless product demand that skateboarding recently experienced, managers could do no wrong. The truth is that growth and cash flow cover up a weak balance sheet and lack of a sustainable competitive advantage admirably. When the cash flow and fast growth goes away, so does the illusion that everything is working fine.
 
I can’t think of a single company owner who, recognizing that the ride was over said, “Say that was fun. Let’s pick up our chips and get the hell out of Dodge.”
 
They believe that what they were doing before can still work, so they try harder. But more of the same is rarely the answer. Some succeed. But many, and perhaps most, just prolong their agony. In the process, and this is why it’s bad news, the market actions they take hurt other companies better positioned to succeed. They discount product. They extend terms. They sell into discount channels. They don’t pay suppliers. They flood the market with product that devalues all brands’ products. In their attempt to return to the glory days they take action which encourage the industry structural changes I allude to above that make their survival unlikely. The HBR article referenced above specifically mentions competitors’ response as one of the things executive tend to underestimate the impact of.
 
What’s a “Downturn?”
 
The implication of “downturn” is that there will be an “upturn.” Fair enough. I guess there will be. Soon would be good. But lurking in that thought process is the suggestion (or the hope) that the upturn will take us back to skateboarding growth rates of a year and a half ago. I don’t expect that to happen, though I would be thrilled to be wrong.    .
 
I don’t expect it to happen because of the structural changes in the industry I refer to above. They don’t have to be permanent- but they often are. What is going to change about skateboarding that’s going to take us back to the days when it was a small, underground, sport? Is there some technology out there that won’t just make skateboarding easier or better, but will fundamentally change it? It has to be something like what the invention of the microprocessor did for the computer.
 
If you are concerned that we aren’t going back to the “good old days” then your job isn’t to survive the downturn, but to succeed in the new skateboard business environment. What does that mean?
 
I guess it depends what you think the skateboard business environment is and is going to be. There’s no reason to believe I can see the future any better than you can, but if you feel that a return to fast industry growth is unlikely, even when the economy improves, then you might consider the following in creating a viable business model.
 
Control your expenses better. Duh. As far as I can tell, most skate industry brands and, to a lesser extent retailers, are already doing a pretty good job at it.
 
Understand clearly and specifically why your customers are buying your product. Adjust your spending to conform to that understanding. For example, if price should turn out to be critical, maybe you should look hard at your marketing budget since you might end up with a better bottom line by reducing some of those expenses and cutting price a bit more.
 
Or maybe it’s your team, and you should be promoting the hell out of them and raising prices. But when you do that, of course, you’re making a decision to limit yourself to that segment of the market that’s highly team influenced. How big is that market?
 
Build a financial model that tells you what volume you need at what gross profit to succeed. No denial and perseverance please. Look at it hard and without the rose colored glasses. When you project growth, have really good reasons for expecting it. May I suggest again the Harvard Business Review article mentioned above?
 
Look for brand extensions that won’t damage the quality of your brand. In this business, that brand is all you’ve got.
 
Retailers, don’t stop taking chances on carrying some new product. But at the end of the day if it doesn’t check and it doesn’t have a good margin be ruthless in your pruning. And make sure you have the systems to give you the information. Skate retailers no longer have the ability to screw up their buying and survive.
 
Consider the possibility that you may need more volume, as a retailer or a brand, to succeed. With a lot of product, hard and soft goods, that’s all high quality and pretty much all the same, and smarter consumers who are no longer quite as likely to be swayed by marketing, you may not have a choice.
 
This new skate industry structure may be temporary- or not- and it may suck. But if you manage your business starting right now for the new conditions, you can succeed and even prosper. Get to it. Your job isn’t to wait out a downturn but to succeed in it.