I knew about this article on the Wavestorm $100 surfboard before it ever came out. In some ways, it’s old news. Less expensive surf boards of various constructions and materials have been popping up for years now, and the Wavestorm isn’t new. I guess the genie was out of the bottle around the time Clark Foam went bell y up.
So on the one hand it’s old news. It was highlighted on Boardistan, and I kind of decided there was nothing to discuss. But it kept popping back into my consciousness, and I couldn’t bring myself to delete the link to it. I even wrote 500 words at one point and trashed it.
But here I am. It’s Sunday morning and I think I’ve figured out what’s bothering me. That is, I finally know, from a business point of view, why I care.
To be clear, yes, I’d prefer that all surfers got their boards from a shaper. Not just because I’d like to see the shaper make some money, but because buying a more expensive board, and maybe having to wait for it a little while, implies a commitment to and enthusiasm for surfing that means maybe we’ve got a long term customer. But the customer always gets what they want one way or the other, and it’s typically somebody from outside the industry- somebody with no personal ties and vested interest- that gives it to them. That was true of the Wavestorm board.
What I want to tell you and explore is that the surfboard, in the mind of many surfers, has in some ways become a commodity. Why would that surprise us? It happened to snowboards and skateboards.
No, not for all surfers. And not for all boarders and skaters either. There is that piece of the market where the brand and the subtleties of the product matter and the more sophisticated and committed customer is willing to pay more for that and perhaps for performance they can tell is superior. Maybe that piece of the market is what we should mean now when we say “action sports.”
I think that piece of the market is shrinking. How can it not when a $100 surfboard apparently performs pretty well and is durable. Granted the six or seven hundred dollar surfboard is better. $500 better? Past a certain level of performance, that price difference is hard to ignore.
I don’t see surf shops ever carrying the Wavestorm. There’s just no money to be made and it takes up the same amount of room as a $700 board. Then again, I’d remind you that it’s been a while since shops made a comfortable margin on their hard goods. And it isn’t just for surf shops that most revenue and profit has come from apparel, accessories, and footwear. Maybe, if a $100 board gets them surfing, it’s not a completely bad thing.
And that’s the strategic question isn’t it? Are we expanding the market with cheaper boards or is it just less revenue for the industry overall? Is it also less interaction with the customer and the shop? If they buy their first board at Costco, will they still come to their local shop for accessories, board shorts, and advice?
The idea I want to leave you with is that a product does not become a commodity just because it’s cheaper or because there’s a lack of product differentiation. It becomes a commodity when enough people want it that figuring out how to mass producing it makes sense. That, in some sense, is hopeful.
I’d also like you consider that we now have customers who view a surfboard (or a skateboard, or a cell phone, etc.) not as a product you buy for its own sake, but as a tool for taking part in an experience. They seek the experience- not the product. I suppose that also contributes to products becoming, or at least being seen as, commodities.
But it’s also hopeful because if we can focus on helping the customer have the experience rather than on selling them the product, we might have an opportunity and point of differentiation. At some level, we’ve always sold the experience. Let’s be more purposeful about it, and focus on the experience the customer can reasonably expect to have.
Costco can sell them an inexpensive, functional board. They can’t help them surf.