Surf industry sees a rising tide

Board shorts, bikinis and flip-flops were again the dress code at the biannual Action Sports Retailer trade show.

But unlike last September’s subdued event -- hampered by buyers scaling back orders amid a deepening recession -- many companies were upbeat as they displayed the latest surf and skate styles and products for next spring and summer.

“This year it’s a hundred times better,” said Christel Hathaway, North America sales manager for swimwear company Banana Moon USA, which by Friday afternoon had already signed about 40 orders -- more than three times its total from last year’s show. “A lot more traffic, and people aren’t just looking, they’re actually buying.”

Held at the San Diego Convention Center, the three-day event has drawn 18,000 attendees looking over more than 500 brands, including major players Quiksilver, Billabong and Reef.


Like nearly all retail sectors, the surf-and-skate industry has been hammered by the economic downturn, which has caused cash-poor consumers to hunt for discounts. And with much of the action-sports market dominated by big-ticket items such as surfboards, wetsuits and skateboards, many brands have been disproportionately hurt as even core customers have cut back.

“I’d never seen anything like it -- it just hit,” said Casey Fleming, director of sales and marketing at surf company Rusty. “We came to a standstill at the end of last year.”

But Fleming said the Irvine company had reduced its expenses and improved its margins during the recession, and was pleased by its sales volume at this year’s trade show.

“Everything’s leveling off,” he said. “You can feel everyone just taking a deep breath and pulling it back up again.”

Although primarily an opportunity for retail buyers to scope out trends and place orders, the trade show -- one of the biggest in the action-sports industry -- has traditionally also served as a massive party for surf and skate aficionados.

That was still true at this year’s trade show, which ends this afternoon. While models showed off skimpy swimwear on makeshift runways, attendees drank beer and cocktails, and DJs blasted rap and rock. At one end of the exhibit floor, skateboarders showed off their moves at a skate park.

But not everyone has caught the wave of optimism.

Sitting at his vacant booth Friday, Ronnie Nathan, a sales representative for the Cover Me and Quintsoul beachwear brands, lamented that he hadn’t received any walk-up business during the event and pointed to his half-empty appointment schedule.

Nathan, of Woodland Hills, said he used to reserve a 10-by-40-foot booth at the trade show, but this year scaled down to a space half as large despite reduced booth prices at the event.

“It’s not what it used to be,” he said. “The electricity has left.”

But James Crush, a marketing director of footwear company Sanuk, said the “prevailing vibe” was hope.

“We’ve got a green light from most retailers,” he said. “It’s a great feeling. Now we’re just trying to keep the momentum going.”