I’ve been on tour for the better part of the spring and summer. If you’ve been reading my monthly tour articles on the Concrete Wave website, then you’ve probably figured that one out already. One of the most fascinating, yet totally depressing set of experiences that I’ve had so far on my tour have involved brick and mortar skate shops. It’s a subject that I’ve written several essays about in the last few months, although I have yet to publish any of them. It’s not exactly an easy topic to take on, because I know damn good and well that passions, both positive and negative, are immediately going to flare up. If you don’t believe me, then check out some of my recent Facebook posts to see those passions hard at work for yourself. On the other hand: I do feel like the subject does need to be discussed in an open and honest manner, sooner rather than later. If I didn’t, then I’d be shirking my responsibilities as a writer and as a journalist. Hopefully, nobody in their right mind would ever want that. Whenever I go into a skate shop on tour, I never go in there as “Bud Stratford, the Executive Director of Concrete Wave Magazine”. No way, that would be totally self-defeating; going into a shop as “some dude with a fancy-pants title” would not serve me well at all. They’d probably be pretty impressed by that, roll out a few red carpets, and schmooze me a little bit, just because of my “perceived industry insider” status. Don’t laugh: it happens. But that’s not really what I’m going for here. So in my world, the fancy-pants title is actually a pretty big hindrance. As a longtime industry analyst, I what I really want to see and experience is the same exact stuff that the everyday kid experiences when they go into a skate shop. That sort of real-world experience helps me to spot emerging trends and propose industry initiatives long before my analyst-insider competition ever could. Plus, the magazine is very “down for the people”, anyway. We genuinely feel like we work on the behalf of the everyday kid first and foremost, even if that means kicking the industry chaps in the nuts from time to time. We are, after all, The Media. That’s what we’re designed to do. Retaining my relative anonymity, and going in there as an everyday skater… or, at times, as an everyday dad window shopping for his skateboarding stepson… generally gets me that real-deal perspective that I’m looking for. Thankfully, I’m still relatively unknown and anonymous enough that it still works out the way I was hoping it would, almost every single time. I call this “mystery shopping”, because I’m not quite revealing who and what I really am when I walk into these places. As such, I suppose I am being slightly disingenuous about my true identity. However, it’s not really “mystery shopping”, as it’s commonly defined. Most “professional mystery shoppers”, at the end of the day, still work for the retailers that are paying them for their shopping experience and their feedback. My reality is way different. I’m not paid by anybody to do what I do. Not even the magazine; my summer tour has been completely self-funded, straight out of my own pocket. And I’m not just “playing the role” of a typical customer; I actually am a typical customer, through and through. Those are pretty big differences well worth keeping in mind. Through the eyes of an avid traveler There’s another huge difference between me, Mr. Aging Touring Skater, and the everyday average kid that might need to be mentioned. As a traveling skateboarder, skate shops are absolutely critical to the success of my touring endeavors. I look at them much like the average citizen might look at a gas station, I suppose; as a convenient place to stop, rest, recharge, maybe get directions relating to where I might find the local skateparks and skate spots. As well as being the best place to find insight and enlightenment about what’s going on, and what’s hot, in the local skate scene. Their importance really cannot be overstated, because there’s nobody else out there on the horizon that can really do the job. The local skate shop, when seen through the eyes of a roving journalist, can single-handedly make (or break) the local skate scene in much the same way that they can make or break a skate scene through the eyes of the average, everyday skater. The only difference between me, and them, is that I see it a few hundred times a year, all across the country. The average kid only sees it in terms of what’s going on in their immediate backyard, and in their local skate scene. So in that regard, the ‘ol brick and mortar probably isn’t so critical and/or crucial to the average kid as they might be to me, as an avidly touring skater. Or, just maybe, the more accurate reality is that the average kid doesn’t recognize the importance of a really good skate shop as quickly as I might. I might see it a bit more clearly, because I’ve seen hundreds of skate shops fail in my time. Far too many of them, just since my 2008 tour. As a touring skater, my travels have suffered the serious consequences. It’s just no fun at all to drive into a strange new town, knowing nothing at all about the skate scene… only to look in the phone book (or on my smartphone) for a local skate shop… find that there’s none around… and realize, to my sullen surprise, that there’s nobody around to help me out and about. A world without skate shops, in my world, is a super lonely place. But the average kid that hasn’t driven a few thousand miles in my shoes hasn’t experienced that loneliness, in quite the same excessively extreme way that I have. Maybe they’re lucky. Maybe they’ve always had a great shop in their community that still survives, and thrives to this day. Or maybe, they’ve never been lucky enough to have a local skate shop to lose in the first place. Or maybe they’re just unlucky enough to have a local skate shop that sucks so hard, they’d be far happier if it just died and went away. The Exceptions Of course, there are exceptions. Of course, there are still great skate shops out there in the world. They might be in the minority. But they do exist, and they do deserve credit and support. I’m not afraid of naming a few of the standout shops that I’ve come across this summer. Sidewalk Surfer in Scottsdale; Active in Tempe; The Sk8 Haus in Surprise; Freedom in Mesa; Beachcombers in Lake Havasu City… that’s the Top Five so far (in no particular order), while 91 West remains the standout private skatepark worth mentioning. I was up in Prescott last weekend attending a contest hosted by the local shop, the Prescott Skate Stop, that I was really impressed with; I keep hearing great all sorts of great stuff about that shop, too, although I wouldn’t know about any of it firsthand (they were, naturally enough, closed up tight last weekend because of the contest). I’m sure there will be a few more notable standouts by tour’s end. But so far, those have been the best of the best. They all shared the same best practices, of course. They were all genuinely super-friendly, knowledgeable, community-engaged scene activists with great product selections covering a wide swath of the skateboarding spectrum. Those are the timeless consistents. And they all do those “timeless consistents” really well, and really right. As a touring skater, customer care and service, local scene activism and awareness, and product availability and knowledge are critical keys to the success of my tour. It’s in these three areas, specifically, that I’m continually let down by the skate shops that I’ve been visiting this summer. The Biggest Bummer: Customer Care and Service This is, by far, the biggest disappointment of them all so far out there on the road. You’d think that a skater, working at a skate shop, would be the perfect situation. That skaters would have a natural tendency to look out for, and look after, other skaters. That skate shop employees would be the coolest, friendliest, and most helpful people in the entire world. That walking into a skate shop… any skate shop on the planet… would immediately feel more like “home” than home itself. You would probably like to think these things, and I would definitely like to think think these things. But that rarely happens for me, in practice, out on the road. That’s nothing less than absolutely f’n depressing. There seems to be this weird belief among skate shop owners… and especially among their cooler-than-you, shitheaded little skateshop employees… that skaters somehow thrive on being abused by the “skate shop cool club”. That it’s all part of some obscure hazing regimen, the price of “the dues” that every skater pays to be indoctrinated into the holy inner sanctum of skate core-dom or something. To top it off, this belief is remarkably widespread. It seems to happen at about eighty percent of the shops that I walk into these days. Which pisses me straight off, every single time it happens. Now, I’m not sure which sludge-for-f’n-brains thought this crazy notion up, or when this obvious lapse of reason and rationale occurred. But let me assure you, it is complete and total bullshit. Skaters are really not that unlike any other customer on the planet. They like to be treated kindly and respectfully, and taken care of, just like anyone else. I’m the customer, fucko. Nobody is cooler than I am. Maybe the problems are the shop employees themselves. Typically cheap, inexperienced, teenage labor working their first-ever “real job”, skate shop employees have never been the harbinger of efficient, fast, or friendly service anyway. Add to that the oversized entitlement and craptastic “work ethic” of The Millennial Generation, and it becomes really easy to see why my mystery-shops have been sucking so f’n hard on my summer tour. Local Scenes and Community Activism Every skate shop in the world that knows their stuff, and knows it well, should have these three things in their shop, at all times, readily at hand. These three things are: – A photocopied list of local skateparks, complete with their “proper” names, addresses, descriptions, and directions, that can be handed out to anyone who asks for it on a moment’s notice, – A city map, tacked up somewhere in the shop, showing where these skateparks are in relation to the shop (which would nicely complement that list that you just handed me), and – Another photocopied and free to hand-out list of all the upcoming skateboard community events, including the events that your skate-shop competitors and local skate activists are throwing, that are happening within a couple hours’ drive of the shop. That list should be made out three months in advance, and full of fun stuff to do, see, and experience at all times. If that list is lacking, then it’s high time to get crackin’ and get to planning some get-togethers. A lot of the shops that I go into will tell me, ad nauseum, about “how much they’re doing for their local skate scene”. Which is great and all, except for this tiny little tidbit of a practical problem: I’m not seeing much actual evidence of it, anywhere. When I go into a shop and ask their salespeople what they have coming up for local skate events… about eighty percent of them will tell me, point blank, “nothing”. Nothing…? “Nope. Nothing”. That, to me, is absolutely criminal. Events are not difficult, nor expensive, to put together. That’s total catcrap, a long-disproven fallacy. How hard is it to take three seconds to scribble up a quick flyer that says, “Hey! Let’s all meet at the park on Friday afternoon to skate! 5 pm, be there or be square!” Shit, man… I owned a skateboard company for ten years. We hosted skate jams every single week, hardly missing a beat (unless it was raining or snowing), for ten years straight. Ask anyone that skated in or around Concord, New Hampshire between 1991 and 2001; they’ll tell ya. And you guys (and gals) that run skateshops today actually have the audacity to try to tell me how “difficult and expensive” it is to throw a weekly community skate session? I’m sorry, I’m just not hearing your blabbering right now. It can be done. All you need to have is a caring disposition, some initiative, and a little bit of creativity. At the end of the day, though, a healthy, vibrant, and engaged community is still built on the shoulders of empowered, engaged, and encouraged individuals. If your salespeople cannot bring themselves to treat any given individual with common courtesy and genuine human respect, then I simply won’t believe your shop’s endless claims of “caring about the skateboarding community”. That whole “customer care and service” thing really cannot be overstated enough. Antisocial Media It’s not like brick-and-mortar skate shops aren’t trying. They’re just doing way too many of the wrong things, and not enough of the right ones. Every shop that I go in to, absolutely prides itself on their social media and e-tailer presence. They’ll talk about it for hours, like nothing else exists in the world these days except for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And that’s great as far as it goes, I suppose. Except for one teeny tiny little oversight on somebody’s part: I’m not a computer. I’m a human being. So ultimately, no, I’m not quite as impressed by your “virtual cloud-based internet friend community” as I am by your living, breathing, analog skateboarding community. Like most kids in the world today, I just don’t have the time anymore to follow 50,000 Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram news feeds. When would I…? I’m always too busy using the internet to plan my next skate-tour itinerary. Besides, “social media” is turning into an antisocial cesspool of utter blah. There’s no redeeming humanity to be found there anymore (as if there ever was in the first place). Everybody is pretty much doing the same exact thing, in pretty much the same exact ways, on the same exact social media, as every other everybody in the world… which ultimately means that nobody really stands out anymore. The whole thing has blown its wad and gone straight to hell, as all good things must do eventually. Any skate shop (or skate company) that is relying on the quick and convenient laziness, and the quickly diminishing returns of social media to drive customer traffic to their door is about five years behind the times. It all seems so intrinsically self-defeating, really. Web traffic is only gonna naturally drive customers to web retailers; that’s a no-brainer. No matter how great your e-tail presence is, there’s still a million of those out there already, most of them better-stocked, better-staffed, and cooler than yours. So driving web traffic does not seem like it would be the smartest or savviest goal. Isn’t the goal of a brick-and-mortar retailer, in a perfect world, to drive foot traffic to the damn door…?! If so, then why in the hell are we relying on the web to do this in the first place? Why are we exclusively relying on a digital technology means, to pursue a purely analog ends…? Wouldn’t it be far better to build an exemplary shop that skaters (or even regular ol’, non-skateboarding people) would happily spend a few hours’ worth of drive time to experience firsthand…? An analog shopping tour de force? At that point, you wouldn’t really need to “invest in social media”. If you build a truly great skate shop, then everyone will be all over social media, talking you up on your behalf. If you feel like you need to be the Joe talking yourself up every sixty seconds on antisocial media, then I’d say you’ve got a real problem on your hands, buddy. The Competition As an industry insider, I hear a lot of griping from skate shops these days. Some of it is totally valid. At least, it is at first glance. There’s way too many e-tailers in the world; they have an unfair built-in pricing and inventory advantage (mostly due to the lower overheads, or lack thereof); they can offer free shipping and steep discounts because of the volumes they move (and accordingly, buy)… and on and on it goes. I’m not so sure that I’m buying that argument anymore. I don’t think that the internet is out there, actively stabbing brick and mortar skateshops in the back. I think that what’s really happening here are that the shops… through apathetic, abusive, or unimaginative business practices… are largely killing themselves. The only thing that the internet is really doing these days, is providing a readily available alternative. If I were an average kid these days, and I had to deal with this sort of bullshit that I’m dealing with on tour on a regular basis… well, I’d probably be spending the bulk of my time shopping online, too. Oh, wait! I am. I still do most of my skate-shopping with Mike Hirsch at SoCal Skateshop, who always treats me professionally respectful, and personally awesome. Or, thanks to the emerging direct-to-consumer trend, directly with the brands who have consistently treated me similarly kindly. It’s not like I’ve abandoned the “core retailer”; I still shop at good shops from time to time. I just have the luxury of freely and easily avoiding the assholes now. So, I do. The brick-and-mortar has a lot of competition these days. They like to blame “price competition” for that, but I think that’s a cop out. I haven’t really noticed if I’m personally paying more or less for anything by shopping online. I’m just getting treated better. That’s all. I suspect that most of your “everyday mystery shoppers” might be telling you much the same thing. Except they’re not saying anything right to your face; customers just don’t have the time or the energy these days for confrontation or explanation. They’re simply turning around, marching off, and voting with their feet. The Haters I have a pretty big ball sack. I’m definitely not afraid to take on haters and critics straightaway. And I was a bit surprised… but, not entirely shocked… to find that I had critics and haters, as I usually do, almost right from the get-go. Apparently, nobody likes some mystery-shopping asshole that’s totally unafraid to tell it like it really is out there; that sort of brute honesty is really dangerous, and could be a real threat. Of course, vested interests are going to want my ass handed to them on a silver platter. I get it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not gonna tell them to go stuff themselves anyway. One that I remember with particular fondness, I believe, summed up the sentiments of all of my detractors in one fell swoop. Thier memorable position was something along the lines of this: “You’re just playing the role of some jerk out on the road, doing mystery shops that the shops themselves do not particularly want, and definitely did not ask for, in order to create sensationalized content for the magazine. And that whole deal is pretty unfair to the shops, themselves.” That’s pretty close to the verbatim quote, actually. And I’ve heard that piss-poor talking point a few times already this summer. Here’s the reality of the world around us, bubbo: every f’n customer that has ever walked into a skate shop, by absolute definition, is a “mystery shopper” that the shop probably did not want, and definitely did not ask for. If that’s the attitude of your typical, modern-day skate shop, then the typical, modern-day skate shop should probably throw in the towel right this second, lock up their doors forever, start marching their hides towards Hell, and don’t stop for a single moment to look back. The customer is not the adversary or the enemy here. If you really hate the customer that much, then you’ve already lost by default. The Skateshop Of The Future Concrete Wave is the only magazine… the only media, for that matter… that is so consistently and militantly future-focused. Which is perhaps a little bit ironic, considering that we are generally perceived as a bunch of naive (or stupid) dinosaurs running an obsolete print magazine over here. Maybe the “common wisdom” isn’t quite as commonly wise as y’all would like to think it is, eh…? The skate shop of the future, in many ways, looks a hell of a lot like the dinosaur skate shop of the past. Nothing in this essay is particularly “new” at all; most of this stuff is the stuff that you used to actually find at skate shops, all the time, back in the day. It just went off the rails somewhere, for some reason. Perhaps it’s just generational; maybe it’s plain ‘ol entitlement, laziness, and apathy at work. Nobody cares about anything anymore anyway, why should skate shops be any different…? Whatever the case may be, retail isn’t going to survive… let alone, thrive… until we put this damn gravy train solidly back on track. And I suspect that it will take no less than a focused, persistent, consistent, industry-wide effort to make this happen. Make a note of that, IASC and BRA. The skate shop of the future, though, is going to be a little different from the skate shop of the past. It will start with excellent customer care and service, that’s for sure. It will be that community hub, scene advocate, event incubator, and foot-traffic destination that I dreamed up, and pretty much mandated a couple sections back. The employees will be product knowledge experts… “product geeks” might be far more accurate… that know pretty much everything about everything skate-related. They should already, because that’s one of the things that separates the legit from the fakes. If you know less than the average skater about skateboard stuff, then you’re on the outs. A lot of mall stores still fit into this category (although, to be fair, they seem to have gotten quite a bit better in the last eight years or so, which is a very real threat that’s well worth noting; Zumiez gets my “Most Improved” prize so far this season, as much as I totally hate to admit it… those bastards). The skate shop of the future will not be “the street-skating shop of the future”. That’s important to point out. Anybody can sell popsickle sticks and white-tablet wheels, so of course everybody does sell popsickle sticks and white-tablet wheels. That’s not differentiation, fellas; let’s get with the program already. And that’s not a skate shop to me. A truly legitimate skateboard enthusiasts’ lifestyle core retailer… memorize that one, because Harbaugh will be writing all about it in ten years or so… will carry the entire spectrum of skateboard hardgoods. Everything from street boards, to vert boards, to old-school shapes, to cruisers and longboards… which is generally where the best shops are at, right now, product-selection-wise… to slalom, freestyle, and downhill gear, which are forms of skateboarding that current core shops still tend to virtually ignore, for variously short-sighted reasons. If you don’t have some little bit of everything skateboarding imaginable, then you’re not a real “skate shop”; you’re a hopelessly opportunistic, lowest-common-denominator, un-original thinking, mass market profiteer. Would you like an energy drink to go with that assessment, good sir…? Truly legitimate skateboard enthusiasts’ lifestyle core retailers exist to give skaters options and opportunities to not just get the information and the products that they might want right here, and right now, today… but if they’re really smart and forward-thinking, they should also be showcasing the types of skateboards that skateboarders might well want tomorrow, as they grow bored with whatever they’re doing, grow older, grow stiffer, and inevitably grow out of popsickles and tablets. Education and enlightenment are important aspects of the core retailer’s mission, and keeping skaters engaged and motivated to think outside the box, do a little bit of personal exploration, try some alternative types of skateboarding, and discover some new fun along the way is strategically smart business. But you almost never see that in core retailers today. I certainly don’t. And that’s one of the biggest fails of them all. The customer is changing. Long gone are the days where “the target customer” could be easily pigeonholed as a twelve-to-eighteen-year old, white suburban male. Skateshops still almost exclusively market themselves to that derivative, not quite noticing that the future market is in girls and women of all ages; older people who want to recapture their former youth (which is, incidentally, every single “older person” on the fucking planet); moms, dads, grandpas, grandmas, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters that want to share skating with their friends and family; and generally speaking, people all across religious, racial, economic, and geopolitical divides. It’s called “inclusion”, and Concrete Wave has been a longtime advocate of the concept. Consider yourselves warned: if your shop is not absolutely inclusive in nature, then you’re built to fail. Lastly: there is no way in hell that any brick-and-mortar skate shop will ever be able to have, in stock, today, at this moment, every single product that is available on the market today. There are far too many brands, making and marketing far too many individual items, for any shop to ever put them all on the walls. But the internet can do it, easily and effectively… and it does do it, all day long. How in the world is a small, independent, stand-alone skate shop ever going to compete with that…? Easy. The Industry is going to revolve. Not “evolve”, as in “evolution”. “Revolve”, as in “revolution”. First of all, we’re going to have MSRP’s all across the board, without exception, in the near future. If your brand or company does not yet have an MSRP structure in place, then you are about ten years behind; it’s well past time to get on top of that. Everyone… including the governmental powers-that-be… will eventually support, aid, and abet this idea, because the last thing that anybody in the world wants to see is a future where ninety percent of all retail space worldwide is boarded up and vacant, yielding urban and suburban blight, crime, decay, abandonment, and rampant unemployment on a massive scale. Nobody with any brains in their heads at all wants that, not even the government (which isn’t well known for being overly bright or competent, but does have a fantastic track record of being fundamentally self-serving and opportunistic). So, yeah, they will all eventually put their thinking caps on, and take a few sensible steps to avoid that. Making damned sure that retail is a valid, practical, and sustainable money-maker is a huge step toward achieving that aim. Then, we will have technology. The perfect marriage between technology and humanity. I’m envisioning small kiosks in every brick-and-mortar skate shop with little laptops on at all times, plugged into an efficient product portal somewhere, where every single skateboard item in the universe can be ordered immediately, through the shop, for home delivery… but with the added benefit of a fast, friendly, and helpful human standing right there, straight behind you, to competently and engagingly answer your 50,000 stupid questions in an inspiring and enlightening manner. What’s a spacer? Who’s Ty Page? What does a split-axle truck do? Where’s the local mini-ramp at? Sure, you can ask Jeeves any of this stuff, and that’s f’n awesome. But only living, breathing, thinking people can fill in all the gaps in your limited questioning that your inexperienced and unenlightened feeble little brain wouldn’t have even thought to ask. That’s the difference between people and computers. People, when they’re at their very best, can actually be perceptive and proactive, and answer questions that you didn’t even know… let alone, think… to ask. Computers can’t. So, there ya go. The gauntlet has now been thrown. The challenge to all skate shops, all across the country, accurately defined and fully articulated. The challenge for an entire industry to take up, and see through. This is everything that I want to see and experience, as a customer, when I’m out on the road checking out skate shops. When these things consistently materialize, that’s when I’ll finally be happy and content. And that’s when I’ll finally be able to f’n retire from this brutal business of skateboard touring, once and for all.