Similar to how we cling to technology of the past, as skaters, we also hang on tight to the olden ways of doing commerce. Handshake agreements, payment in products, and brick-and-mortar retail locations are all things that many industries have moved past or at least tried to modernize. Although we’re not fully in the stone age, and modern marvels like online retail are a huge part of skateboarding today, we’re still seeing new physical shop locations pop up all the time.
Opening up a skate shop requires a lot of money, time, and effort that most skaters, including myself, could never commit to. If you are a brave soul looking to venture on that journey yourself, though, we’ve got your back. We spoke to a few different shop owners who have opened their doors within the last few years to find out more about the process of opening up a skate shop in today’s economy and compiled their advice into this handy guide for future skate shop owners of the world.
FINDING A LOCATION
Lord Harold Samuel, a UK real estate scumbag of the early twentieth century, coined the phrase “Location, location, location.” And although trusting a British guy from the early 1900s seems like a trap, what he said rings true for skate shops. A good location is absolutely key to the success of a shop.
Ideally, you’d like to find an affordable space with a lot of foot traffic from skaters and non-skaters alike. Having your shop full of yuppies and tourists might not be what you imagined, but those regular-ass people who don’t know what is cool and uncool are the ones who will spend money on Primitive Dragon Ball Z decks and endless Dunk colorways.
You also want to consider your proximity to local spots and skate parks if you want to be the go-to shop for actual local skaters. Crushed Skate Shop, in Washington D.C., had the right idea when they took over a space that was formerly home to a few other shops. Not only is the shop located on “Black Broadway” with tons of shops, bars, and restaurants, but it’s also a ten-minute skate to Freedom Plaza, a.k.a. Pulaski.
It’s also worth noting that if another shop is within a few block radius, you’re probably just going to cause some shop beef and screw yourself out of having certain brands in the shop (we’ll get to this later on).
PICKING A SHOP NAME
Coming up with a name and logo might seem trivial, but it’s something that you’re going to see hanging outside of the shop every day. You’re also going to have it printed on shirts, hats, and boards, so it better be something that looks and sounds good.
For example, KCDC Skate Shop, located in Brooklyn, was named 20 years ago. Since it is just four letters, it’s very easy to work with in terms of logos and designs. Furthermore, the acronym is still unknown to the local skaters and employees, giving it some kind of mysterious energy.
My only advice as a consumer and life-long skater is to not overcomplicate it. The name you land on should either be an acronym with a few letters or just one simple word (think Labor, FTC, Orchard…). You’re not going to be remembered as thoroughly unless you use something succinct and impactful.
According to Primary Skate Shop in Canada, you’re going to need at least ~$100,000 to start up properly. Our friends at Voyageur Goods told us, “Want to watch $100K disappear in a matter of weeks? Open a skate shop. Or get into online sports gambling.”
You can do it for less, but if you want to have shoe brands like Nike, Vans and Adidas in the shop, you’re going to want to have enough capital. You also have to consider what else the start-up money goes to; buying hardgoods, paying rent, remodeling the store, equipment for running a business, eCommerce services, employees, paying yourself and a bunch of other small things that will undoubtedly come up before you even open your doors. Make sure you get your money right before you open.
Mom’s Skate Shop, a bit of an outlier here, was able to open up for under $25,000. In most cases, this wouldn’t nearly be enough capital to start out with, but somehow skaters always make things work.
DEALING WITH LEGAL STUFF
As it goes with starting any business, there is a lot of paperwork and legal stuff that you have to work out. In most cases, shops rent their space, so if you’re renting the space you’ll need to sign a commercial lease. You’re also going to need to file for an EIN number and get a sales license for tax purposes.
All of this could be a headache if you’re not already privy to legal jargon and contract bullshit. Luckily for hopeful shop owners, there are skaters who work in almost every field including white-collar jobs like lawyers, accountants, and business consultants. Reach out and see if they could help read through your lease before you sign it. Or maybe find a realtor who skates and can help you find a space within your budget. Most importantly, keep your paperwork organized.
BUILDING OUT THE SHOP
You can read countless articles about what kind of interior design and layout does best for brick-and-mortar shops, but you have to keep in mind that both budgets and space are limited.
There are a few interior necessities. For one, you need an accessible board wall, counter space to display trucks, wheels, bearings, and whatever else, and a shoe wall (if you’re selling shoes). Lastly, you’ll need a point of sale system, which includes a computer, card reader, and cash register, at the very minimum.
Voyageur Goods told us, “A friend who started working as a finishing carpenter — we spent many many hours, days, and weeks collaborating on designs and custom furniture pieces which he then built and installed. We also had our friend, and skatepark builder, Noah Powell come through and pour us concrete countertops that really feel at home inside our space; they’re so sick you almost want to skate them.”
As far as layout and getting people in the shop, the owner of Homebase told us, “I’ve always had the most success by having the shoes near the window and the boards in the back. But that’s because we’re trying to bring all kinds of customers in not just skaters. Having a lot of boards on the wall has always helped us too. The whole minimal thing doesn’t really fly out in the suburbs.”
At all levels, skateboarding is based on relationships. Knowing the right people, a.k.a. the people who work for brands or distributions, can make stocking your shop and opening accounts a breeze.
However, not every shop owner made their industry ins before opening. Finding brands that are in demand isn’t hard, but getting those brands to sell to your shop can be tricky. If certain brands or distributions are slow to answer, you can always look toward third-party distributions like Eastern Skate Supply.
Also worth noting is something Primary Skate Shop said in reference to buying and knowing people in the industry; “Everyone is three degrees of separation. Reach out. It’s a small community.” You can hit up reps on Instagram or find friends of friends with the right connections.
Something to be mindful of is the fact that some brands and distributions will not sell to your shop if you’re too close to a shop that already sells their goods. Put simply, say if Deluxe already sells to a shop in your immediate neighborhood, chances are they’re not going to start selling to a new shop.
OPENING SNEAKER ACCOUNTS
It might seem that having shoes in your shop is a must, but not all skate shops have accounts with sneaker brands – and this doesn’t mean they’re not successful. Just look at Tenant in New York.
Our friends at Crushed Skate Shop said, “Do what you can. Don’t overwhelm yourself.” On the contrary Primary Skate Shop told us, “You better have super low overhead if you [open without sneaker accounts]. Footwear is a big part of the business.”
It gets tricky because when you’re dealing with buying hardgoods, that usually means dealing with fellow skateboarders. However, dealing with sales reps from brands like N*** or A***** often means dealing with the sales reps’ corporate overlords, too. These shoe brands have and will continue to strong-arm shops to spend a certain amount a year, or the brand will cancel their account. You can also read more about how certain limited-release shoes affect the ecosystem of shops here.
You might not have to worry about having a whole team immediately, as you, the shop owner, will be doing most of the initial work. However, there will be a time when you have to find some workers to help keep things running.
Coming from a former skate shop employee, there are a few things to keep in mind when hiring a crew of skaters. Make sure they actually skate and are members of the local skate community. If they don’t skate, there will certainly be local skaters shit-talking the shop for hiring people who look like they work at Zumiez.
Second, pay them a living wage so they won’t shit talk you and the shop when they blow half a paycheck on rent and the other half on weed. At the very least, be honest with them about pay.
Lastly, make sure you trust them. If you can’t trust them to hold down the shop if you have to run some errands or want the day off, then you’re just going to be stressed and put that stress back onto the other employees. This isn’t going to help anyone out.
Most business owners who are starting something fresh should expect a few years of being in the red financially. Voyageur Goods was brutally honest when asked about being profitable in a year; “We won’t be profitable in one year. When you factor in all of the overhead and cost of goods, it’s going to take us some time until we hit profitability. We’re doing really well so far and have begun making real dents in the debt I incurred to get things off the ground, but it’s simply a time vs. cashflow equation and you have to be really patient. It’s stressful as hell but mathematically it’s working out, just slowly.”
Because shops take a minute to get off the ground, and because selling only hardgoods is the least profitable thing to do, many shops have tried to make their shop more of a brand that can transcend outside of their walls. However, if you’re not in a popular skateboarding city like New York, Chicago, LA, or San Francisco, that might be impossible.
MANAGING A WORK-LIFE BALANCE
Our friends at Primary told us bluntly, “A work-life balance is pretty nonexistent. It’s no joke, you really have to put your all into this.”
Despite the grueling work, all of the shop owners we spoke with had more positive things to say about running a shop than negative. Voyageur Goods said, “Work isn’t really work. I always think of the intro to Dylan’s part in A Time to Shine. He says, ‘Skating is a job. You do have to work at it. But in all reality, what would you rather do?’ I get stressed every day about money and schedules, but at the end of the day, I get to work in skateboarding and be around the thing I love with the people I love.”
BUILDING A COMMUNITY
Arguably one of the most important parts of opening a shop that will have some longevity is having the backing of the local skate community. You can get this strong community backing by actively being a part of the skate scene, hosting events, employing locals, and making your shop home for the kids and skaters who need a place to kick it. Just think about all of the cool things that skate shops did for you as a kid and try to emulate that.
As a new shop owner, you will also be a part of the community of skate shop owners across the world, who all have shared experiences and have gone through similar problems at one point or another. You can always reach out, share tips, and empower one another to really offer the best experiences possible to skaters in your local scene.
Words by: Larry Lanza
Illustrations by: Aubrey Fisch
Special thanks to the owners of Primary Skate Shop, Voyageur Goods, Crushed Skate Shop, Moms Skate Shop, and Homebase
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