Self Help for Core Retailers; The Coastline Model

Hi, I’m back. This was just too interesting not to inflict myself on. And I imagine O’Brien couldn’t find anybody else willing to touch it. 

From the last issue of TransWorld Biz, you may remember that our hero, Sean Kennedy of New Zealand, had started a company called Coastline owned by, so far, 42 core surf shops in New Zealand. The purpose of Coastline, as reported earlier, was to provide small retailers with the scale and collective resources to allow them to create and sell, just like the larger chains, their own store brand (Coastline) which they could control and earn a higher margin on. Seems simple, but I imagine that organizing a group of independent retailers and getting them to cooperate is a lot like herding black cats in the dark. But you know what? I like it.
 
I like it because it’s retailers taking the bull by the horns and helping themselves to deal with the issues we know exist for specialty retailers. I like it because it represents a realistic evaluation of how the retail market is evolving. I like it because it may be the difference between success and failure for some of the specialty surf retailers we all seem to believe are critical to the industry.  I like it because it can evolve to be much more than it is right now. I like it because after talking with Sean, I’m convinced it’s being done in a professional and businesslike way.
 
And I like it, truth be told, because I love anything that stirs up the pot like this. This is not “more of the same” to quote me.
 
Why Now?
 
This ought to be a really short section. Being a specialty shop in surf, or in any action sport has become a really tough business. People who aren’t either growing, or increasing their gross margins, or both, are going out of business. Growth happens, and if the market is growing I guess you can expect to get your share if you do things right. If it’s not, or if you want to grow faster then it’s hard work and costs money.
 
It would sure be easier to make money if fifteen or even a higher percentage of your sales were from a product that made you a 60% gross margin instead of 38%. It would be even nicer if some of those sales were incremental because this product represented a great value for your customers.
 
Let’s see, 15% of sales of one million is one hundred fifty thousand. Twenty points on that is $30,000. But if, let’s say, $50,000 of those sales are new, then you get $20,000 on the incremental gross margin plus 60 percent of those $50K in new sales, so the bottom improvement, more or less, is a total of $50,000 in additional gross margin. Granted, I just pulled those numbers out of my posterior parts (or “arse” as they call it in Dublin). But it’s kind of an interesting calculation, don’t you agree? 
 
So that pretty much deals with “Why Now?”. Hey look, I did keep it short.
 
How Do They Do This?
 
A few years ago, I had car insurance with what was called a mutual insurance company. That meant I paid my premiums, based on how much insurance I wanted and how many little old ladies I’d run over while intoxicated, and at the end of the year, depending on how the company did, I got some money back. It could be more or less depending, for the company as a whole, how many of those little old ladies were unhappy about being crushed.
 
Sean wasn’t all that forthcoming about details, but said my insurance analogy wasn’t too bad. Basically, the stores that are owners put up capital each year based on how much product they want. The company designs, gets made, and delivers the product. Coastllines also has to pay its people and own expenses. But it isn’t trying to show a big profit- it’s goal is to help its owners/members make more money. 
 
Coastlines is a bit cautious about what kinds of shops they allow to join the company. For now, they have to be surf shops, but equally important, they have to have a certain level of financial strength. Coastlines is no more interested than any brands in customers, even if they are owners, who can’t pay their bills. Makes sense to me.
 
Of course, that means that the shops who most need this kind of help are less likely to get it, but I’d hate to see the whole concept endangered because of the problems of a few owners, so I guess that comes under the heading of “oh well.”
 
The design work is all done by Coastlines, but they aren’t looking, in Sean’s words, “To create the image for 16 year olds. That’s Quiksilver’s and Billabong’s job. We just want to make an attractive product that sells well and gives the retailer a good margin.”
 
So they are going to be a bit behind the curve and look for what they consider to be the best and safest ideas they see. I suppose that might annoy some people but I can’t say that I see that as being different from what major retail chains do when they do private lable.
 
Sean was, as I would have been, tight with his numbers. That is, he didn’t give me any. But let’s generously assume that his 42 stores average $1,000,000 each annually in sales. Let’s say 20% of their business so far is Coastlines. If those numbers were anywhere near accurate, total retail sales of Coastlines would be (42 x 1,000,000) x 0.20 or $8.4 million New Zealand dollars. I want to emphasize again that I have no idea what the real numbers are, but I’m working towards making a point here.
 
Of course, Coastlines is selling the product to its owner shops at its cost plus some mark up. You pick the markup you think is appropriate and decide for yourself what Coastlines’ sales as a company are.
 
My point is that Coastlines needs to get bigger before it can really take advantage of economies of scale and have buying power with factories. Still, it’s way beyond what a single shop could hope to do already, and that’s why Sean thought it was so necessary.  How might they get bigger?
 
Future Plans
 
This is the intriguing part isn’t it? Sean was closed mouth about how Coastlines might evolve, but that was fine with me. I’ll have a lot more fun envisioning possible futures for Coastline without being encumbered by facts. He did let a few things slip. He allowed as he’d had some calls from different people in different part of the world and in different sports. And when I asked about having other action sports shops as owners, he said, “Not yet.” So he’s thinking about it and, I’m expecting, will be pulled toward growth and other avenues of expansion besides surf. It will be fun to watch.
 
One thought I had was that there wasn’t any reason that Coastlines couldn’t easily function as a trade association as well and offer benefits and services similar to the Board Retailers Association in the US (Join BRA if you haven’t already). And many months before I ever talked to Sean or heard of Coastlines, I had heard rumblings of some form of retailer cooperation from some pretty solid US retailers. If it works in New Zealand, I can’t see any reason it shouldn’t also work in the States. 
 
Right now, Coastlines’ product line consists of wet suits, some simple mens’ and women’s apparel, and a couple of pairs of shoes and sandals. The point is that it’s soft goods and, with the exception of wet suits and maybe sandals, the design and sourcing translates from surf to skate and maybe to some other places with little difficulty. Most retailer, even core surf shops, are selling lifestyle street wear to non participants. I can’t see any reason why Coastlines couldn’t move in that direction and find an attractive source of growth that would be consistent with its core mission. If surf shops, in the midst of unprecedented growth in surfing, need this kind of support, how much more must other kinds of sports specialty shops need it?
 
And the Brands?
 
Well, hell, I assume they would prefer that everybody buy their stuff and that there was no private label business from anybody. And they are probably still watching BRA out of the corner of their eye to see if Roy Turner is going to turn it into a buying group, which he keeps saying is not his goal. They’d also like it if all shops always paid their bills before their due dates and never returned any warranty product. And myself, I’d like to win the lottery, but I’m not holding my breath.
 
Sean and I, and maybe even most of you, agree that it’s too bad that distribution has become as wide as it has. And we wish the specialty retail environment hadn’t gotten quite so tough and competitive. And we’re not quite sure we’re thrilled with all the company stores being opened.
 
And then we shrug our shoulders and go, “If I was a brand, I’d be doing the same things.” We hope it turns out to be good for the industry. We know it’s the nature of competition and will be good for the brands who do it best.
 
But unlike some other people, Sean isn’t hoping brands won’t open stores. He isn’t bitching and moaning to his supplier when it open a shop down the street from him. He’s said, “Okay, this is how it is. How can we respond in a positive way that supports the shops that everybody in the industry thinks are critical to our industry’s future?”
 
If the shops aren’t incubators for new ideas and brands, if they aren’t aware of trends, if they and the brands don’t keep the lifestyle alive, then it’s just a sport and is less of a priority to the participants. And then it’s price that matters.  Let’s hope Coastlines continues to succeed.