As a skater growing up in the 80s, I grew accustomed to looking over my back as I skated. Cops, dumb gang bangers, or irate land owners charging at me with a garden hoe were a constant worry. The skateboard industry isn’t much different than an 80s skater–always looking behind themselves for a thug ready to dish out a beat-down and take their wallet. It used to be major mainstream shoe companies, or the evil brute took the form of a Taiwanese deck, made cheaply overseas at a cost that American companies couldn’t compete with. The fear was that if these cheap knock-offs flooded the market, they could take out premium domestic skateboard companies like Godzilla stomping on Tokyo.

This threat never materialized in the 80s, at least not to the extent that industry heads feared. For one thing, skating was still basically grassroots–if you didn’t skate, you weren’t dialed in with the shops that sold skate product. The shops weren’t buying the cheap Taiwanese decks, so they never really entered the hardcore marketplace.

When the problem finally did materialize in the 1990s, it wasn’t overseas sweatshops cranking out the cheap decks, it was people in our own backyard. And it couldn’t have happened at a worse time–skateboarding was on an upswing in popularity, and the companies that toughed out the early 90s were hoping to finally enjoy some success. Just like hillbillies running makeshift alcohol stills during Prohibition, skateboard hillbillies began pressing decks in their backyard. Most were crap, looking like the laminating process consisted of pouring a bottle of Elmer’s glue over seven layers of old veneer and parking a car on it overnight. You could tell most of them sucked just from looking at them, but at half the price, they flew out the skate-shop doors. Suddenly, the industry looked out the window and saw a major reason for their slowing deck sales–almost a quarter of decks sold in 1998 were blank models*.

There were a few factors involved in the increasing blank sales–the value of the professional skateboarder became watered down due to the sheer number of them, companies only catered to the high end of the market with pro and company-logo decks usually selling for between 40 and 50 dollars, and many pros were getting coverage in magazines and videos riding prototype boards with no graphics whatsoever. Skateboarding, in a general sense, is similar to any other business–the varied market will demand a range of pricepoints, or as Tod Swank, VP of industry relations for skateboard.com, says, “Everybody has their Cadillacs and Toyotas.” But at the time, skateboarding only had the Cadillacs.

If blanks were all piles of crap and didn’t steadily improve in quality, they wouldn’t have caused a problem. Kids would’ve gotten fed up with delaminating boards that carried no warranties. But a few skateboard companies that couldn’t succeed the old-school way by creating a quality product and nurturing a team to promote it, started running their presses full-bore and popping out blanks like it was a race. These blanks were at a quality close to, if not the same as, a lot of pro decks available.

Attack!

Powell was the first popular company to attack this problem. In 1998 they introduced their line of Mini Logo decks–half blank, half pro-quality boards–that at about 30 dollars retail were far below regular pro decks’ cost. The Mini Logos had the same quality wood as Powell’s pro series, but required less finishing work (simpler, smaller graphics). “I was concerned about the loss of business to blank boards,” says George Powell. “I’d heard from a number of our dealers and seen in person while visiting shops that blank boards were becoming a very significant part of their business, ranging from twenty to 40 percent, depending on the dealer and the year.”

Powell felt naturally bummed: “(I was) shocked to learn that our industry was losing that much volume in decks and wheelso people who weren’t necessarily in the industry or supporting it at all.”

In order to combat the rising demand for cheaper boards, Powell figured out a way to keep the quality high and the cost low on his Mini Logo boards. “Quite a bit less labor goes into making a Mini Logo deck for us,” he says. “While it’s a lower-margin item for us as well, we make a lot of them by streamlining our manufacturing process. We don’t skimp on the wood; we use the same wood, same press–everything is the same. We can use our streamlined process to output three or four times as many Mini Logos through (simplified) decorating. To put an eight-color silkscreen (on a board) is expensive and time-consuming. We’re saving three to five dollars–our cost–a deck by not having it stop, not having it stay in our shop, by not having all the colors. Our lots are bigger–everything flows smoother on that product.”

The main reason Powell could do this is because it’s one of the few skateboard companies that operates its own woodshop.

In our industry, more backstabbing goes on than in a Shakespeare play, and with the launch of the Mini Logo decks, people started talking smack about Powell. But five years later more than a few companies are weighing the options and trying to figure out how to service the lower end of the market as well as the high.

Toyotas And Cadillacs

Seraphim Skate Shop in Pensacola, Florida has a wall lined with 280 decks, all of them pro shapes or logo boards that sell for $51.99 with griptape. Pete Kelly, general manager and part owner, keeps his shop boards under the counter as if they are dirty material not suited for public display. Seraphim decks retail for $39.99 with griptape, and he pulls them out only when customers ask for them.

Kelly understands that decks make up a small percentage of a customer’s purchasing power (he figures decks alone make up 30 percent of his total sales) and if he pushes blanks he could be losing out on possible accessory sales. He’s also not afraid to give a discount on a pro deck if a kid is in a hard spot.

While he pushes pro decks, Kelly reasons that if he doesn’t offer a pricepoint alternative, customers who really want blanks may take all of their business elsewhere. Kelly, and all shop owners, must try to satisfy all the people all of the time. “I’ll sell blanks all day long if it’ll get another kid into skating,” he says when asked about selling to a first-time skater. “Then they’ll mature and buy their Flips or whatever.”

By “blanks” Kelly means pricepoint shop boards. He refuses to carry non-branded blanks and won’t even carry Powell Mini Logos. The shop decks he buys are from an Alabama manufacturer that makes boards for major brands.

Given his stance on pricepopint decks in general, it seems paradoxical that Kelly also wants to sell and distribute Seraphim-brand boards outside of his store (he does this on a small scale right now). He sponsors a team of skaters and a few pro models will be released soon. But like many shops with their own line of pricepoint boards, Kelly doesn’t consider himself in competition with pro decks–and maybe he’s right. Every shop manager or owner I spoke to for this article seemed bummed on blanks, pushed branded boards as much as possible, but admitted, usually cheerfully, that they carried shop decks. Aren’t these the same thing as blanks?

Not anymore–shops, just like George Powell, decided to take on the non-branded blanks themselves. They reacted to a change in consumers’ buying patterns and addressed the problem when the industry as a whole refused to. Regardless of whose logo or brand is on the boards, from the consumer point of view, the result is a broader choice at different price levels.

Expensive Decks, Eh?

The pricepoint situation amplifies when you leave the U.S. David Faulkner runs successful skate-shop Replay Board Shop in Abbotsford, B.C., Canada, where due to the exchange rate, prices between pro decks and blanks or Mini Logos are even greater than in the States. “We all know that pros keep the industry alive,” he says. “But you’ve got to understand my point of view here–in a store in a small city, it’s price. Families come in that just can’t do it (afford pro decks).”

In the U.S., pro and company-logo decks still account for 70 percent of total deck sales, so the effects of pricepoint shop and blank boards have been limited*. But it can also be argued that shop and blank decks combined account for 26 percent of deck sales that would otherwise go to premium branded product. Compared to the blank boom of a couple years ago, though, shop decks have gained some of the ground that unbranded blanks have lost. So whether they buy a shop or a brand-name deck, consumers have demonstrated they prefer names they trust.

In the U.S., where the price difference can be ten or fifteen bucks, it’s easier to sell a top-of-the-line board, but in a country like Canada, where the exchange rate balloons the costs to almost 80 dollars Canadian a deck (about 52 dollars U.S.), distributors and shops that sell pricepoint decks offer a more convincing argument. “If we added all of our pricepoint product together (as one brand) and compared it to any single brand, the pricepoints are by far bigger,” says Kelly Jablonski, general manager of Ultimate Skateboard Distribution in Richmond, B.C., Canada.

Jablonski won’t go near unbranded blanks, and understands how the “circle of life” (Sorry, that Elton John Disney song is stuck in my head) works in skateboarding–companies make money, sponsor skaters and contests, advertise in the mags, support the industry as a whole, and everybody’s happy–while some blank companies were furniture manufacturers that had nothing to do with skateboarding, but could easily press a few-thousand blanks, take the money, and run, giving nothing back to the industry. “We tried to stop ordering blanks for a while and boycotting them, but shops just phoned us and pressured us to sell them,” Jablonski says. “I’d rather support pro skateboarding–skateboarding is based on pros. If every company starts eliminating pros and selling pricepoint, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of our industry.”

From the shops’ point of view, it’s a lot of work to sell a deck, and the margins are low. Faulkner’s pro decks retail for 79 dollars Canadian (about $51.25 U.S.), including grip, but he buys the decks from the distributor for up to 58 dollars Canadian. “Just to make around ten bucks on a sale?” he asks.

A father of five, Faulkner points out that many families can’t afford to set their kids up with pro boards. And with skating getting as gnarly as it has, all the hammers kids chuck down take their toll on decks. “The boys are trying big stuff these days,” he says. “They’re breaking two boards a week sometimes. In Canadian funds, that’s close to two-hundred bucks. Who’s got that kind of money? That’s like drugs–it’s supporting a habit. That’s one reason for blanks. The boys have got to ride–they’re hooked, they’re addicted, and they can’t afford two pros a week.”

This is where pricepoint decks come into play–they’re cheaper and usually offer a higher markup. “All of our blanks are 45 dollars (Canadian, which is about 21 dollars U.S.), because we round off our prices,” says Faulkner, who uses the term “blank” loosely these days to include full-graphic and branded pricepoint decks. “We’d be nuts here (if we didn’t)–right now I’m looking at seven different blank companies on the wall. Some of them I get for 29 dollars (Canadian) a deck, some 39, so we just round it off.”

Even if you stay in the States, pricepoint decks are taking bites out of the deck market. Dave Kelso, manager of the Board Bin in Ketchum, Idaho, says that pricepoint models account for 25 percent of his board sales. But for him, modern pricepoint decks are diffeada, where due to the exchange rate, prices between pro decks and blanks or Mini Logos are even greater than in the States. “We all know that pros keep the industry alive,” he says. “But you’ve got to understand my point of view here–in a store in a small city, it’s price. Families come in that just can’t do it (afford pro decks).”

In the U.S., pro and company-logo decks still account for 70 percent of total deck sales, so the effects of pricepoint shop and blank boards have been limited*. But it can also be argued that shop and blank decks combined account for 26 percent of deck sales that would otherwise go to premium branded product. Compared to the blank boom of a couple years ago, though, shop decks have gained some of the ground that unbranded blanks have lost. So whether they buy a shop or a brand-name deck, consumers have demonstrated they prefer names they trust.

In the U.S., where the price difference can be ten or fifteen bucks, it’s easier to sell a top-of-the-line board, but in a country like Canada, where the exchange rate balloons the costs to almost 80 dollars Canadian a deck (about 52 dollars U.S.), distributors and shops that sell pricepoint decks offer a more convincing argument. “If we added all of our pricepoint product together (as one brand) and compared it to any single brand, the pricepoints are by far bigger,” says Kelly Jablonski, general manager of Ultimate Skateboard Distribution in Richmond, B.C., Canada.

Jablonski won’t go near unbranded blanks, and understands how the “circle of life” (Sorry, that Elton John Disney song is stuck in my head) works in skateboarding–companies make money, sponsor skaters and contests, advertise in the mags, support the industry as a whole, and everybody’s happy–while some blank companies were furniture manufacturers that had nothing to do with skateboarding, but could easily press a few-thousand blanks, take the money, and run, giving nothing back to the industry. “We tried to stop ordering blanks for a while and boycotting them, but shops just phoned us and pressured us to sell them,” Jablonski says. “I’d rather support pro skateboarding–skateboarding is based on pros. If every company starts eliminating pros and selling pricepoint, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of our industry.”

From the shops’ point of view, it’s a lot of work to sell a deck, and the margins are low. Faulkner’s pro decks retail for 79 dollars Canadian (about $51.25 U.S.), including grip, but he buys the decks from the distributor for up to 58 dollars Canadian. “Just to make around ten bucks on a sale?” he asks.

A father of five, Faulkner points out that many families can’t afford to set their kids up with pro boards. And with skating getting as gnarly as it has, all the hammers kids chuck down take their toll on decks. “The boys are trying big stuff these days,” he says. “They’re breaking two boards a week sometimes. In Canadian funds, that’s close to two-hundred bucks. Who’s got that kind of money? That’s like drugs–it’s supporting a habit. That’s one reason for blanks. The boys have got to ride–they’re hooked, they’re addicted, and they can’t afford two pros a week.”

This is where pricepoint decks come into play–they’re cheaper and usually offer a higher markup. “All of our blanks are 45 dollars (Canadian, which is about 21 dollars U.S.), because we round off our prices,” says Faulkner, who uses the term “blank” loosely these days to include full-graphic and branded pricepoint decks. “We’d be nuts here (if we didn’t)–right now I’m looking at seven different blank companies on the wall. Some of them I get for 29 dollars (Canadian) a deck, some 39, so we just round it off.”

Even if you stay in the States, pricepoint decks are taking bites out of the deck market. Dave Kelso, manager of the Board Bin in Ketchum, Idaho, says that pricepoint models account for 25 percent of his board sales. But for him, modern pricepoint decks are different than the nerdy no-graphic boards that populated shops a few years ago. “We have the Mini Logos and the Board Bin decks–decks with our own graphics,” he says. “We have sold (generic) blanks in the past, but right now I don’t have any in.”

The cheap-looking bland blank has grown up and started caring about how it’s dressed. “Blanks are growing,” Faulkner says. “I keep using the word blanks, but if you could see the Tower decks from Montreal–they have full logos. It’s a full-logo board but they still sell to me as a blank.”

All Dressed Up

Pricepoint decks today have formed a microcosm of the pro-model world. Gone are the masses of faceless, generic decks. Today you can call up a company, pick from a variety of shapes and sizes, design your graphics, and they’ll do the rest. You just wait for the UPS driver to unload boxes of boards with your shop’s name and design screened on it. Shops love it–they make a larger markup than on a pro deck, and it’s free advertising.

But here is where it starts to get messy, and the line defining blank producers and legitimate premium companies blurs. Many premium companies, like Powell and Element, sell pricepoint boards in an attempt to fill the gap between blanks and pro decks. But as they’ve found ways to lower prices on certain models, the traditional pricepoint decks now have fancier graphics, custom concaves, and other features once reserved for premium pro decks. This, of course, is driving up their price, further closing the gap between premium-brand pricepoint boards and shop decks. The Board Bin sells their decks for the same price as a Mini Logo, and according to Kelso, they move more shop decks: “Kids like the fact that it’s from our store. They kind of like our graphic (Board Bin lettering with big flame).”

Let’s also not forget that salespeople often push their own shop boards harder.

This convergence in price between blanks and pro decks seems to be making some premium companies that promote and rely on pro sales nervous. They’re already producing pricepoint boards, and more than a few–who’d rather not be mentioned–are working on a way to maneuver into this market without damaging their brand names. This is a legitimate concern–according to Jablonski and Kelso, kids either want the name brands and don’t mind paying for them, or they head straight for the blanks. Powell is the one company that nailed the pricepoint boards, but at a cost–their pro boards suffer. “Say we sell 1,000 Powell boards,” Jablonski says, “800 will be pricepoint boards.”

George Powell recognizes this and doesn’t seem too bothered by it. “(Distributors) order Mini Logos in the hundreds and thousands, and they order graphic decks in the tens and hundreds.”

“The middle-range stuff doesn’t sell for us,” Jablonski explains. “It’s either the Mini Logo, the really cheap stuff, or the pro full-price stuff. Nothing in the middle seems to do too well. It’s either people who want to buy their hero’s board at full price, or they’re past caring about graphics and just want a good board.”

Another problem that companies encounter is mercenary markups imposed by shops more concerned by their bottom line. A company could trim all the fat on the price of a deck only to have a shop mark it up to match the price of more expensive decks. Kelso at the Board Bin says he doesn’t do this, but he could see how some shops easily get away with it. When I asked if he thought Alien Workshop decks would sell better if they offered a pricepoint model, he said he didn’t think so: “If it says Alien on it, they’ll buy it anyway. Even if it was a pricepoint deck, I could probably still price it at 50 dollars and they’d buy it.”

Even if they don’t mark it up to a pro-model price, many shops average the costs of boards and make them all the same price.

One way to limit the liability that goes along with trying to create a new price category for a top-lev