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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Surf shops hope to ride the crest

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Local surf shops are gearing up for what could be a record year for sales, fueled by the state's booming economy and the growing popularity of the sport.

Rob Stehlik, owner of the Blue Planet Surf shop in Kapahulu, shows a longboard to Hawai'i Kai resident Karen Lar Rieu. After surfing for about a year, Lar Rieu said she was ready for a new board. Stehlik, whose shop has been open six years, says July's sales set a record.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Tourism continues to rebound from a slump caused by the Iraq war and SARS. June visitor arrivals were the highest ever for that month, while the hotel occupancy rate was the best in 13 years.

And the forecast looks good through next year, with visitor arrivals expected to break the 6.9 million record set in 2000.

Surf shops have benefited from the upswing in tourism, with owners noticing many more tourists — from Japan and the Mainland — browsing through swimsuits and buying surfboards.

At the same time, the sport of surfing has grown into a $3.2 billion industry worldwide. And local surf shops are riding that wave of growth.

While no comprehensive data are available for surf shop sales islandwide, many shop owners are reporting double-digit increases from a year ago.

"There's way more people coming in," said Vince Brady, assistant manager at Northshore Boardriders Club in Hale'iwa, where sales have been up 20 percent from last summer. "Especially more tourists from the Mainland. All those movies and shows are bringing the crowds over here. ... The way I feel, as busy as we've been, this might be the one of our best summers, if not the best."

This summer has proven to be one of the best for Blue Planet Surf Gear, said chief executive officer Robert Stehlik. Last month was the best month ever in sales for the surf shop, in its sixth year of operation on Kapahulu Avenue.

He increased inventory this summer in anticipation of the seasonal flock of tourists and surfers to O'ahu's south shore. Blue Planet stocked up on swimsuits, rashguards and board shorts — all of which are flying off their shelves.

"It's been pretty strong across the board," Stehlik said.

And with one board, in particular: the surfboard.

Blue Planet sells new and used surfboards, from entry-level longboards to more high-performance rides. Epoxy surfboards, which are lighter, have been doing particularly well, Stehlik said.

The store sells between 60 to 100 surfboards a month. He attributes part of that to the boom in popularity of the sport, which now boasts millions of surfers worldwide.

Sales overall have grown by 30 percent since 2002, when many surf shops were seeing a drop in profits because of a decline in visitors.

"I'm hoping the trend continues, but I'm not expecting anything," Stehlik said.

Sales are also up at T&C Surf, which had to increase its inventory to keep up with the demand, especially from the influx of Japanese tourists starting in April, said Lani Isherwood, senior marketing director at T&C Surf.

Although Hawai'i's economy is expected to continue its momentum, retailers shouldn't rest on their laurels, said local retail sales consultant Ron Martin of Success Dynamics.

"Times aren't always going to be good, there's always ups and downs," he said. "But you don't have to go down with the down times."

He said businesses should focus on improving customer service, which may translate into increased sales and leave positive impressions on potential return customers.

"Added tourists, an improved economy, good weather — these are all factors that can help sales," Martin said. "But I'm a big believer that what (businesses) are doing with their customers walking into their stores have more to do with their success than all of these outside factors."

He pointed to Surf N Sea in Hale'iwa, which has experienced sales growth even during economically sluggish years.

The surf shop saw business improve about 15 percent over last summer, owner Joe Green said.

"The North Shore has been rediscovered again," Green said, adding that the current production of Fox's "North Shore" and various films that have been shot on location there have given the area a lot of exposure.

Surf shop sales on the North Shore have traditionally dropped off during the summer months when the surf is flat. But many shops, including Green's, are reporting solid sales this summer.

Green says sales of snorkels, masks, fins and other diving equipment have been doing well, in addition to surfboards and T-shirts.

About 60 percent of his customers during the summer are tourists, and that number has gone up in recent years.

"We've always had good summer business," Green said. "There's a lot of people out here that complain or have said they'll be glad when winter comes back. But there's thousands of people in this town in the summertime. This is one of the best diving areas in Hawai'i on the North Shore in the summer. And these people spend more than the surfers who come in the winter."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at 535-8103 or ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.