Hansen: Surf stores vie for the lineup

Surfers are territorial, and surf shops are not much different.

So when Laguna Surf and Sport woke up one recent morning to find surf veteran Rip Curl setting up shop directly across the street, it was like the proverbial drop in.

"We were surprised," said Jason Watson, manager of Laguna Surf and Sport, which sits at the corner of South Coast Highway and Oak Street. "This town doesn't want it to be Huntington Beach."

Watson was referring to the wall-to-wall surf stores on or near Main Street in Huntington, including Rip Curl, Billabong and others.

The new Rip Curl, at 1099 S. Coast Hwy., is taking the spot vacated by the Stand Up Paddle Company, which moved next door because of a lease dispute. Based in Australia, Rip Curl is expected to open the new store next week, according to marketing director Dylan Slater.

At first blush, this might seem like a David and Goliath story, with the small Laguna store fighting against a large retail giant. But that's not exactly true.

First of all, the surf industry is very incestuous and surprisingly corporate. You need an org chart to keep track of all the players. Consider these facts:

While Laguna Surf and Sport started out as a small independent in 1982, it is now owned by Volcom, which is a subsidiary of PPR, a French multinational holding company with revenues of $16 billion. PPR also owns brands like Gucci, Puma and Cobra golf, among many others.

Rip Curl, meanwhile, is a private company that has stuck to its surfing roots. Founded in 1969, the company has not made any large acquisitions and is still known primarily for its wetsuits and surf tour sponsorships.

"We're actually the small guys," said Slater. "The two guys who started it in 1969 still own it today. Basically, our mission as a company is to be regarded as the ultimate surf company."

Make no mistake, the retail surf industry is big business, yet trying to claw its way out of a debilitating recession. According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn., a few top players are fighting over a $5 billion market.

With few exceptions, nearly all of the "local" surf shops have bigger owners, creative marketing arrangements or complex organizational structures designed to eke out profit.

Billabong owns Second Reef Surf Shop, formerly Thalia Street Surf Shop, which was sold and split off in 2009. Nick Corcores still owns the surfboard side of Thalia, which co-markets a space with Vans. 

Hurley was bought by Nike in 2002 and opened the Laguna store in 2009. Previously, in 1983, Bob Hurley bought the U.S. rights to Billabong and helped form the company in the states. 

Confused yet? There's more.

Quicksilver, which has had a Laguna store since 1992, owns DC Shoes and for a time owned Rossignol and Cleveland Golf. Quicksilver CEO Bob McKnight lives in Laguna.

And while we're talking about residency, there is an astounding number of surf industry  leaders who live in Laguna: Billabong USA's President Paul Naude, and Jeff Booth, its national sales manager; Hurley's VP of Marketing Pat O'Connell; Mark Christy, president of Hobie; Tex Haines, owner of Victoria Skimboards. Volcom founder and CEO Richard Woolcott lived in Laguna for many years before moving to Corona Del Mar. There are several others.

The point is, Laguna Beach is a desirable location for a reason.

"Laguna has been an area that has that rich surfing tradition," said Slater of Rip Curl. "A lot of great surfers have come out of Laguna, so it's been on the radar. When that store opened up, it's an amazing location and it really provides the canvas for us to tell our brand story."

While it is understandable that Laguna Surf and Sport's Watson, who has been part of the store since the beginning, feels a little miffed about Rip Curl, he acknowledges that there are local benefits.

"It will probably create mojo for the block," he said. "We're going to continue doing the best that we can for our customers."

Slater says Rip Curl wants to do right for Laguna as well.

"We always try to give back to the community, whether it's beach cleanups or getting involved with schools or programs that give back," he said. "We're looking to be good neighbors. We're not looking to take away or challenge Laguna Surf and Sport for every customer.

"That's not our goal. Otherwise, we would have tons of different brands in our stores. It's more about providing Rip Curl product to our customers."

In the end, it's the customers who may win here, with more options in a town rich with surf culture.

Let's face it, there are plenty of waves to ride — at least if you know Laguna.


DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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