Okay, let’s review the rules.
1. Consumers eventually get what they want to the extent the market is capable of providing it.
2. Companies do whatever they perceive will give them a competitive advantage, or at least let them survive.
3. The less real differentiation there is among products in the same product class, the more important price will ultimately be to the consumer. Marketing can delay and reduce, but does not eliminate, this tendency.
4. Lots of people have lots of stuff made in China, and it works fine. Don’t get me wrong. I am for sure not sitting here saying, “Isn’t it great that there can maybe be a lot of high-quality skateboards from China!” It would be great for skaters, I guess, that they could get a less-expensive product (for some reason nobody is allowed to say “cheaper” anymore) that performs well. But this industry is sustained by a fairly small number of companies that can afford to support and nurture skateboarding because they make a pretty good margin on the product they sell. What happens to those companies and to the skateboard industry if China uses its manufacturing cost structure (that is, cheap labor) to take a chunk of industry production?

A Few Realities

First, let’s dispose of the argument that the Chinese can’t make good skateboards. I have heard all the arguments about why it won’t happen. They can’t get good wood, there’re problems with humidity, lead times are too long, production quantities required for China are too high, et cetera. These, and others I can’t remember, may be valid arguments at the moment. But they are tactical, by which I mean they can be solved if it’s worth the time and effort to the offshore manufacturer to solve them.

Low-cost foreign manufacturing has gutted (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) various U.S. manufacturing industries including wood products. Last time I checked, a skateboard was a wood product. But my guess is that until recently the segment was perceived to be too small to attract the attention of the offshore manufacturers. Now it’s not.

Second, it’s already happening. You know it, I know it. There have been cheap “Chinese maple” skateboards being made for a while and sold through the mass markets. Most “‘core” companies I have talked to are at least looking into the idea of getting decks from China or trying to figure out how to deal with it if their competitors do it. I don?t know who is or is not actually getting them now. Nobody seems too anxious to discuss it in detail.

Third, lots of skateboarders are willing to buy lower-priced decks. Blanks and shop decks make up a big percentage of decks sold in U.S. shops. Whatever that percentage is here, it’s higher in Europe, where skateboards imported from the U.S. are even more expensive than they are Stateside.

Finally, it won’t ultimately matter to consumers that the product isn’t made in the U.S. It doesn’t matter for a host of products made in China, including snowboards and skate shoes.

The opportunity/threat analysis is obviously a bit different depending on whether or not a company is a manufacturer. Let’s start with brands that are not.

Brands With No Factory

On the surface, it’s conceptually easy. You buy boards from an OEM manufacturer for X dollars a board now, and you can get them from China for one half of X.

Wish it were that simple. My own experience getting stuff from China is that shit happens, and your control of said shit diminishes by the square of the language, customs, and distance barriers. A solid relationship with your manufacturer, your own people on the ground where the stuff’s being made, and constant focus is required. The price may start out half of what it costs to buy it made here, but by the time it’s late and you have to air freight it, the registration is off on the screening, and the voids in the glue make every tenth board break, a lot of that cost advantage disappears.

But see rule four above. People are gog to figure it out because the cost difference is so compelling. Maybe it’s worth it to air freight some decks. Maybe you bring blanks over and screen here. Some brand is going to do it if they aren’t doing it already.

Then the issue becomes, what does that brand do with their newfound money from the portion of decks they have made in China? They basically have three choices. They can put the money in their pockets, they can cut their prices to grab share, or they can increase marketing. Obviously, they can do some or all of those. Other brands, either because they want some of that extra money or because they have to respond to the competitive threat, are likely to respond by getting some decks from China as well.

Sourcing from China, or any other low-cost country for that matter, is not a disruptive technology. It does not confer a long-term competitive advantage on anybody. To the extent that it confers an advantage at all, it confers it temporarily on the brands that do it quickest, but not so quickly that it’s screwed up as described above. Pioneers are often rewarded by having monuments built on their graves.

Next, what probably happens is that some of this pricing advantage inevitably begins to ripple through the market and reaches the consumer level. I can’t quantify how that will happen, but remember that if prices are lower, you end up with less total margin dollars to work with unless you raised your margin percentage. Maybe as an industry we will exercise enough self-discipline so that we hold margins.

Of course, I’ve never seen that happen in action sports, and am not holding my breath. If, in fact, total margin dollars decline, then the volume you have to sell to make the same profit rises, and that’s what puts small companies out of business. Our existing industry business model seems to allow quite a number of smaller brands to survive, if not thrive. I think they are critical to skateboarding, and we risk losing some of our market advantage, energy, and legitimacy with ‘core customers if they go away.

One other thing could happen. Maybe, as they say in economics, demand is elastic with respect to price. That is, cheaper skateboards mean that more are sold. I expect that’s true to some extent, but I doubt it’s enough to prevent the compression of total margin dollars for the industry as a whole.

Factories With No Brands

Will have a problem if and to the extent that the brands they manufacture for can work out the problems with Chinese described above. At the very least, brands will use the threat of China to negotiate lower prices. Size, for any factory, will matter. Factories doing bigger volume will have an advantage.

Factories With Brands

Will have a chance to find out just how important their teams and advertising programs really are to skateboarders in product choice. I’m not suggesting for a moment that, in the current market, they aren’t critical. We all know they are. But if a product that somebody doesn’t think is quite as cool is suddenly significantly cheaper, that can be pretty cool.

To the extent that Chinese production becomes viable, I expect them to have the same problems with OEM customers as any factory. To the extent their margins and volumes are higher, they have some flexibility in dealing with pricing pressures that stand-alone factories and brands may not have. I won’t be even slightly surprised when I see these companies continuing to run their factories but getting some of their production from China.

What’s An Industry To Do?

The only credible argument I’ve heard so far as to why some variation of the Chinese production scenario I’ve outlined above won’t happen is that our product cycle and process of distribution makes it impossible. I haven’t quite decided if that’s an actual barrier to entry or just another tactical problem to be overcome like the others I’ve described above. I hope to hell it’s a barrier. Keep changing those graphics and shapes!

Know any other reasons? Let me hear from you and I’ll share them. The only thing I don’t want to hear is, “The skateboard industry is different.” It’s never been true in any industry I’ve seen. The worst thing individual companies, and the industry as a whole for that matter, can do is delude ourselves into believing that the usual competitive dynamics don’t apply to us.

Jeff Harbaugh works with action-sports companies dealing with issues of market transition. You can yell at him about this article at (206) 232-3138, or by e-mail at jharbaugh@msn.com.hics and shapes!

Know any other reasons? Let me hear from you and I’ll share them. The only thing I don’t want to hear is, “The skateboard industry is different.” It’s never been true in any industry I’ve seen. The worst thing individual companies, and the industry as a whole for that matter, can do is delude ourselves into believing that the usual competitive dynamics don’t apply to us.

Jeff Harbaugh works with action-sports companies dealing with issues of market transition. You can yell at him about this article at (206) 232-3138, or by e-mail at jharbaugh@msn.com.