Skateboard retailer brings coastal culture inland.

A shop in California’s San Fernando Valley has been a main artery for the skateboard industry for almost 40 years now. Val Surf opened with a single store in North Hollywood in 1962, and the chain has now grown to four locations. The Woodland Hills shop opened in ’73, followed by Thousand Oaks in ’90, and finally Valencia in ’97. The North Hollywood location continues as the main store and central warehouse for the chain.

When Bill Richards founded Val Surf with his three sons, Mark, Kurt, and Eric, he envisioned a shop that would provide quality surf and skate products to a broad clientele. “Our whole reason for being, when we first opened our doors, was to have an inland surf-and-skate shop, which hadn’t been done in the San Fernando Valley,” says Mark Richards, who since Bill’s retirement in the late 80s has overseen the purchasing, marketing, and advertising side of the family business.

October 6, 1962 was the grand opening of Val Surf Boardshop, then a 1,200-square-foot storefront. With an initial investment of 5,000 dollars, Val Surf was able to open its doors with a couple display cases, T-shirts, some surfboards, and a line of skateboards. Val Surf has remained at the Whitsett Avenue and Riverside Drive intersection in North Hollywood for almost 38 years, but has relocated three times. In 1988, the Richards brothers and staff packed up the shop and marched across the street to the shop’s third and final location, a 12,000-square-foot storefront next door to its original site. Val Surf bought the building and has kept the same address since. More recently it expanded into the upstairs unit to make room for a bookkeeping staff and additional storage, and further expansion is now under consideration.

Soon after opening, the Richards family quickly realized that people living away from the beach, and So Cal for that matter, wanted to buy the products they had to offer. So after only a couple months they launched a mail-order business. “We knew there was need for a store to offer quality skateboards, T-shirts, and so on to the customers,” explains Mark Richards. At the time Val Surf opened, they were pioneers. But as the industry grew and the popularity of skateboarding increased, more and more people saw the mail-order business as a profitable, untapped resource. With competition from every front, Val Surf would up the ante by increasing its product mix and taking out more advertisements with the magazines. During this period, mail order accounted for about ten percent of overall sales.

In recent years Val Surf has backed off from that part of the business, since so many companies have launched mail-order operations. “It became a little tough to keep up with that, to compete at their level with their mailings and full-color brochures, in addition to their ads in the magazines,” says Richards. So in the interest of their core business, which was stronger than ever, Val Surf’s owners decided to focus more of their efforts on the local community and walk-in traffic. And assembling an army of local skaters is a positive way to promote the store. “Our team goal has been primarily to promote our local stores, and there’s no one that more strongly promotes a local scene than the local skater,” says Richards.

Val Surf hasn’t dropped its mail-order business completely, it’s taken a different angle¿e-commerce. “It just became more apparent that the print ads really weren’t going to pay for themselves anymore,” says Richards. “We developed our Web site with the e-commerce store incorporated into it,” he explains. Currently, the Val Surf Web site, www.valsurf.com, accounts for about one percent of the company’s total sales. The Web site contains a “storefront” in which visitors can make purchases, check out the local team, get directions to the various locations, and read some history about one of the oldest skate shops in the worrld.

Val Surf is a family-oriented business, and the responsibilities are delegated to various members of the Richards clan: Kurt, acting as CFO, spends his mornings in North Hollywood taking care of the banking, and his afternoons at the Valencia store; Bill’s eldest son, Eric travels to the four stores to check on inventories, makes pick ups and deliveries, and basically keeps the stores balanced; Kurt’s daughter Denise is head of women’s buying; Eric’s son, Damon, is the North Hollywood manager and assistant buyer to Mark; Jim “Oz” Oswald, Mark’s brother-in-law, manages the Thousand Oaks shop; and Mark’s two sons, when they’re not in school, help out in the store.

Val Surf’s product mix includes skate, surf, and snow goods, which currently contribute evenly to its total dollar volume. Of the various skateboard-product categories, shoes account for about one-third, clothing another third, and skate hardgoods and accessories make up the difference. With higher margins on shoes compared to skate hardgoods, footwear has become a major focus of the stores. “It’s become our strongest category, not simply because the skaters are buying the shoes, but it’s become quite the look with non-skaters as well,” says Richards. He goes on to explain that by no means have they neglected hardgoods because of the lower markup (twenty to 25 percent on skateboard decks). “Even though skateboard decks do not bring in the healthiest margins, we still have the best selection anywhere in the area and will continue to do so,” says Richards.

Val Surf tries to keep a tight grip on the margins because they vary so drastically from category to category. Some product leaves the store at cost, like surf wax, and other items are being marked up keystone plus ten percent to make up the difference. “You must keep an eye on that bottom-line, overall average margin,” he says.

All the Val Surf stores are destination shops for their customers, with people of all ages shopping there, including the older-generation skater down to the young kid with their parents looking for their first deck. “Something we’ve always taken pride in is that the parents feel comfortable coming into our store,” says Richards. “Through the years we’ve always wanted Mom and Pop to feel as comfortable as Junior in our store.”

Val Surf has been building a strong foundation in the local skate scene for close to four decades now. They’ve survived the industry downfalls and flourished during the healthy upswings. No secret formula here, just discipline and love for the sports.

Most important lesson learned: “In this business it’s absolutely essential to be involved, to be actively involved in the sports from a participant standpoint and fully throw yourself into it. You can’t be competitive by coming into the business from left field and trying to touch the surface of the sports. It just doesn’t work.”

¿Mark Richards