TransWorld Business.

Originally posted in the January 2013 print edition of TransWorld Business. It was a career milestone for me to be included in what is now a biannual print edition of the action sports industry’s B2B bible.
Sorry I don’t have a PDF of the actual article, but I have a copy under my coffee table.

The Next Big Thing: Jumping on the Right Trends, Avoiding the Wrong

As a retailer, how do you know when a new trend is worth making the investment? How do you identify what will be rad and what’s just a fad? I interviewed retailers across the country to look back at how and why certain brands, products, and even single SKUs made action sports history. It turns out each trend’s success is only partially due to its concept. Equally responsible for product popularity is serendipitous placement, timing, and finding a cozy niche.

First and foremost, any item a retailer stocks on their shelves must match their shop story. Not all trends are a good fit and owners need to identify what will work best with their brand and not undermine their credibility. “The biggest trend has been the consciousness that the customer has when it comes to where they shop,” says Bryce Phillips, founder of evo in Seattle. “People want to be a part of something special and it’s transparent when you truly care about the sports and lifestyle and all of the cultural elements that surround the lifestyle.”

If you’ve got clout with your customer and you believe in something, so will they. Here are some guidelines to help you make the tough calls about when to open your wallet and when to just say no.

Does It Fill A Void?

Perhaps the best chance for success is identifying trends that fill a need in a lagging category or demographic. TOMS piqued the interest of buyers looking to plug a slow, but steady leak in Juniors’ by appealing to both fashion and compassion. Surfside Sports owner Duke Edukas reflects on the introduction of TOMS to his store: “Our women’s buyer somehow convinced me at a time when Juniors’ was at a low point with fast fashion killing us…to carry women’s shoes. Her passion convinced me, and we sold the shit out of them!”

Edukas is not the only one that’s been successful by bringing in TOMS—sales recently surpassed two million pair—not to mention those two million children throughout the world who received their own shoes from TOMS.

Does It Take An Exciting New Direction?

Once every few years a fresh, dynamic brand breaks into the marketplace with an exclamation point, quickly carving a place on retailers’ shelves. Edukas cites Volcom as being the breakthrough brand for Surfside. “Embracing Wooly and Tucker’s vision from the very beginning transformed our business, and became a baseline for how we’d make decisions on welcoming new brands in the future,” he says. Volcom’s brand attitude, aggressive design, and identifiable color palette slated Volcom a spot among leaders in a short amount of time. Edukas saw that Volcom was different and identified with its direction, a great barometer for success.

Will It Create A New Segment?

Three years ago Jeff Kearl, Rick Alden, and their team of innovators introduced Stance socks to the industry, prompting a new view of an everyday essential that previously had only been approached in an outsourced, private label sort of way. By offering a high tech, comfortable and quirky sock at a reasonable price point, specialty retailers ate it up, and so did their customers.

Another new brand that flies off the shelves is GoPro.. No camera has ever been made and marketed so effectively, with applications specific to surf, snow, and beyond. Plus, like Stance, GoPro offers a smashing POS display that takes up minimal floor space.

Ask yourself; will new trends bring new dollars, or just further slice up your current pie?

Embracing New Sports

The entrance, and eventual acceptance, of a new sport is the most quintessential “trend.” Snowboarding’s culture meshed naturally with skate and surf. By the mid 90s, snowboarding had become the third pillar of action sports specialty retail. The 21st century has already seen the Stand Up Paddle lifestyle introduce a slew of new consumers to action sports retail in a tough economic time—even with a high price point—and arguably helped save many surf shops from going out of business. Top manufacturers and retailers in the skate industry credit the increased popularity of longboarding, with its broader customer base and higher dollar hard goods, with maintaining skateboarding as a viable product category.

But be careful; for every SUP and longboarding craze, there’s a Roller Blade and windsurfing kit out there.

Does It Change The Game?

Perhaps the most valued trends are those that pave the way for progression. Advances in technology like snowboard camber and stretch boardshorts have been integral to the perpetuity of our livelihood. The call for more environmentally friendly production and the closing of Clark Foam led surfboard shapers to look to new materials, which have evolved the surfboard. While the most profitable, game-changing successes are the ones that cross over from core participants to the lifestyle customer, advances in hard goods stimulate new excitement, attracting even more new customers to our products and culture.

Before making the buy, ask yourself; does the technology change the sport for the better or is it just a gimmick? Snowboard and longboard paddles anyone?

What’s next?

Roundtable discussions at networking events always prompt excited musings about the next “big thing.” As it turns out, “it” is happening all the time. If the impact of the past few years of trends seems less than paradigm-shifting, maybe it’s because times have been tough for everyone, and new ideas brought us back from low to status-quo, rather than setting us soaring circa 1996. As our industry recovers along with the economy, we must continue to look forward to the future brainchildren of the innovators who continue to reshape the marketplace. Your job is separating the heroes from the zeroes.

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