Sumo Skateshop provides role model

One of the keys to running a successful business is ensuring that the business continues to have a market, a buyer, an audience. Unfortunately, it’s still common for a skateshop owner to believe this responsibility does not fall on him. It’s easier to rely on the manufacturers, distributors, professional skateboarders, and media to take charge of the development of skateboarding. But what about on a local level? True, many shops put on demos, help organize contests, and rally to get skateparks opened, but what more can be done?

Many a lesson can be learned from the small shop in Northern England called Sumo. Opening their doors in September ’93, the owners wasted no time in making the shop not only a haven for local skaters, but a pinnacle of expanding youth culture. Now the sole owner, Sebastian Palmer started Sumo with two friends because “the only shop in the area was doing such a bad job. and we had to travel 50 miles to get any kind of decent service,” he says. “As a group of friends, we were the focal point of the Sheffield skate scene, and remain so as a shop.”

Aside from fulfilling the basic retailer role of providing product to consumers, Sumo helped further develop skate culture in the area. For example, the 900-square-foot shop is known by many outside of its retail zone for being involved with events such as the Dysfunctional exhibition of international skateboard art in 1996, held at The Blue Note in London, England. Additionally, they supported the creation of the subsequent Dysfunctional book, recently published by Booth Clibborn Editions in association with Mo’ Wax Arts.

Last fall Sumo hosted an exhibition called “Stationary Motion: Twenty years of British skateboard photography from 1978 to 1998.” With the success of this show, they developed a permanent space for showing contemporary art and photography. The first exhibit in the series was a solo show for photographer Patrick Ward. The second featured the illustrations of Kid Acne.

Sumo is always on the lookout for good work to display on their walls. “We try to give people an understanding of skate culture and with the exhibitions in the shop we get national recognition for the kind of artists who inspire us through photography, illustration, printing, spray-painting, or whatever,” explains Palmer.

By supporting skate culture--locally and nationally--Sumo has managed to continue to draw kids into the shop by keeping it interesting; getting the customer into the shop is always the first hurdle. Sumo has figured out an effective way to accomplish this task, while making sure kids like their environment enough to stick around for awhile.

Other Sumo-sponsored events have included the promotion of two significant feature films: Kids at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield in association with Electric Pictures, and Rhyme & Reason, where Sumo worked closely with the Sheffield International Documentary Festival and Miramax films to host the UK premiere.

Sumo’s dedication to supporting film projects was further augmented by the hosting of the UK premiere of Blueprint’s Anthems video in 1997, which has been Britain’s best-selling skateboard video thus far. Last year, Sumo released their first skateboard video, Through the Eyes of Ruby, which was filmed by Neil Chester.

To top it all off, after working with the City Council for two years, Sumo has managed to get a free concrete skatepark built on Devonshire Green in Sheffield. The park should be finished this fall, with a promise from the city council for more local parks.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Sumo, the shop, runs itself. With all of the extracurricular events and promotions, there is still a business to be run. One can imagine the wet weather in northern England is not always conducive to skating, so owning a strictly-skate shop can prove difficult at times. Sumo is heavily subsidized by clothing, as the sales figures illustrate: 45-percent clothing, 30-percent footwear, and 25-percent hardware.

Our shop gives a lot more space and emphasis to skateboarders than is justified by sales, but we always encourage skaters to chill and watch videos and meet others--especially when it’s raining,” says Palmer. “Fashion customers subsidize the authenticity of us being a skater-specific store, but equally the skaters provide the vibe.”

Palmer is almost always working at Sumo--what he calls fully hands-on--just another indicator of why his business is so well-known and respected. But this is where he wants to be and it shows: “The best part is setting up a kid with their first decent setup and watching them progress and develop not only their skating, but their personalities,” says Palmer.

Owning a shop in England that caters to customers who are primarily interested in products imported from Southern California can have its disadvantages. “Skateboarding is approximately 40 to 60 percent more expensive in Britain than in the United States, so it’s hard enough for kids already,” explains Palmer. “We have a real low markup. A U.S. pro deck costs us 31 pounds, and we sell it for 46 pounds before tax, but we also give away free griptape.”

The situation is the same with shoes, but again, clothing seems to be the saving grace for Sumo. Aside from getting a reasonable return from clothing sales in general, Sumo pushes British clothing lines for a few reasons. By supporting manufacturers from England, they can avoid import taxes, distributors, and ridiculous pre-order requirements. “We push all our British labels, as we can at least see where the money goes,” says Palmer. Sumo reported that hardgoods and clothing from the United Kingdom sell better than brands from the United States.

One of the chief concerns for Sumo is the relationship between the shop and the distributor. “Too many distributors let shops take the risks when ordering by piggy-backing on the shops’ demand and foresight,” explains Palmer. “With the bigger U.S. companies, particularly footwear, they should try and understand the European market.”

Power comes in numbers: Shop owners throughout England have banded together to regulate the market, give advice, and watch for industry changes. “I am in close contact with a network of the good shops around the country,” explains Sebastian. “As independents, we try to watch each others’ backs. We have a little union called Skater Owned Shops. We keep in contact and watch trends come and go, as well as watching the distributors.”

Despite some of the difficulties that accompany running a skate shop outside of the United States, Sumo has staked a claim as one of the influential powers in England. They have worked on every front to ensure skateboarding’s continued success--not just locally, but as a sport and a culture. After being a skater for fifteen years, Sebastian Palmer has fulfilled his dream of running a successful shop.