To understand the life of a beachfront retailer, think of a surfer paddling out on a crisp, clear morning.
Past the froth of inshore breakers, wave jockeys bob in the gently rolling swells like sparrows on a power line. Their patience pays off when they catch a foam-crested giant for a ride to remember.
So it goes, too, for the bikini peddlers, frozen yogurt purveyors and souvenir hawkers who cluster their shops within a gull's cry of the sea.
Merchants are buffeted by the lackluster economy as they wait for the next big wave--a magnificent summer. They want teen-agers and tourists clogging the sidewalks and temperatures sizzling right along with the sales.
Like those early-rising surfers, retailers share an unflagging optimism. The Big Summer is coming, they say. The monster curl is rolling in. With a little luck, it will arrive this holiday weekend, the start of the summer season, and last until Labor Day.
"I think it will be a great summer," said Suzanne Mullen from her Espresso Alla Spiaggia cart on Main Street in the heart of Huntington Beach's "Surf City" strip. "I think the recession is going to turn around. There will be lots to do."
The same bullishness is shared by vendors at the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach. "It's going to be good. I already know. I've been here long enough to know," said Pat Kennedy, who runs the Baldy's Tackle fishing supply store.
There is early evidence to support their optimism. Spring break--the week before Easter--has become the beachside equivalent of Groundhog Day for summer retail sales. If legions of college students snatch up sandals and T-shirts along with the barrels of brew, chances are the trend will continue.
Spring break '92, some merchants fondly recall, was the most profitable since 1986. Its success was largely because of unseasonably warm weather and sunshine that were a vast improvement over the same period a year earlier.
Merchants hope that good weather will hold for most of this coming season, replacing the drizzly, somber skies that dampened spirits and sales last summer and made Southern California feel like Seattle in March.
So far, weather forecasters are upbeat.
"We're calling for a warmer than normal summer," said meteorologist Marty McKewon of WeatherData, the private weather forecasting company in Wichita, Kan. "Water temperatures are warmer than they were last year. . . . It's helping to reduce the marine layer, the low clouds and fog. When the water is warmer, they don't thicken up as much."
Water temperatures have been running 68 degrees to 70 degrees--more typical of July or August than May. That has been good news not only for surfers and swimmers but also for fishermen--yellowtail, bass and bonito are biting off the Orange County coast a month ahead of schedule.
"You can almost tell how much money you are going to make by the 11 p.m. weather forecasts," tackle-shop operator Kennedy said.
Some retailers are relying on intuition, ordering more merchandise than usual in anticipation of strong sales. Others, still fearful of being struck with unsold goods, are more conservative.
Gary Hoisington, owner of the Team Bicycle bike and skate sales and rental shop in Huntington Beach, said he is doubling his inventory. And why not? Sales during spring break this year, he said, were triple last year's.
"People are tired of being cooped up," Hoisington said, theorizing that rain, earthquakes and the Los Angeles County rioting will drive Southern Californians by the thousands to the escapism of the beach.
Yet to be seen is whether the memories of the year's various catastrophes will scare tourists away.
One school of thought--the one to which merchants ascribe, at least publicly--is that Orange County will hold its own or even benefit from the urban discord. This county, they say, will be viewed as a sun-swept, tranquil, innocent vacation spot.
"No one wants to go to L.A. They want to come to Orange County," said Mike Grabowski, manager of Henry's Grocery store and its adjoining bikini shop on the Balboa Peninsula. Grabowski said he already knows a thing or two about tourism this year. Australians, he said, showed up in impressive numbers recently and virtually cleaned the store out of T-shirts emblazoned with the Newport Beach logo.
A bit farther north, the new 300-room Waterfront Hilton at Huntington Beach along Pacific Coast Highway reports that it is almost fully booked for summer.
"The resort has been close to full occupancy," said Michael Bullis, president of Destination Properties, which manages the beachside resort. "We're above 1991's figures at this time, thanks in part to greater awareness of the 2-year-old resort and more sunny days."
As upbeat as hoteliers and retailers sound, they are not forgetting the lessons learned during the recession. Some merchants are sticking with proven, reliable suppliers of surf wear.
"We did more ordering from the big companies and are dropping back on other ones," said Frank Caronna, night supervisor at Huntington Surf and Sport in Huntington Beach.
Some merchants, however, have been so weakened by the recession that a boom summer may come too late.
The lone clerk at one Pacific Coast Highway surf and ski shop ushers his sole visitor through the racks as if on an archeological expedition. This summer, the clerk said, "can't be any worse than last summer," which was so bad that most of the merchandise from then is still on the shelves.
The clerk, who would not give his name for fear of losing his job, described the owners' efforts to raise cash to keep the store open. A few pair of rental skis remain. The rest were sold at big discounts--$50 for a complete set of skis, boots and poles. As more bills come due, he said, more merchandise is being marked down.
Affluent customers who kept much of the beachside retail scene thriving have cut back their free-spending ways of the 1980s. The days of frequent sales of $125 Persol sunglasses have long since passed. For some retailers, business has been so dismal that they may not last through the summer, no matter how much sales pick up.
"It's not picking up. We're not turning around like we should be. I have a lengthy group of customers whose husbands have lost their jobs," said Anne Weiler, who is closing her Kid's Kloset/Kid's Klub children's clothing store along South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, across the street from Surf and Sand Hotel.
"A lot of families have gone from the high end of the spending spectrum to being very cautious. One of the things they are not going to do is spend $100 on a children's outfit," she said.
For Weiler, one trouble followed another: fog last summer, heavy rains last winter, a decline in tourism, weak Christmas sales. Inexplicably, Halloween and St. Patrick's Day brought in scads of pint-size customers, but Easter did not.
"I think we hit the recession late," Weiler said, "and we're coming out of it late."