On the Easter long weekend a significant event will be held down in the regional town of Robe in South Australia, the 50th anniversary of The Robe Easter Classic, making it one of the longest running surfing event in Australia behind Bells. The shop the drives the event is Steve’s Place and owner Sam Woolston has been a driving force behind it for a number of years since taking over the shop We recently shot owner Sam Woolston a few questions to catch up after the summer trade and learn a bit more about the event.
Steve’s Place has been around for over 5 decades now. We don’t often say 50 years! It’s a long time for any business to be operating. What do you put the success and longevity down to?
We’re lucky to have a store in such a great town with good beaches and surf. Robe is a small tourist town, so the population grows over summer and each holiday period, which is good and helps as well. We’ve always offered competitive prices, and being the only authentic surf store in the south east that sells wetsuits, surfboards & surf hardware has helped. Also being a passionate surfer myself goes hand in hand with the shop.
How do you think the surf and retail industry has evolved over that time?
So many more brands are now targeting such wide range of different demographics from surf, skate, and fashion and outdoor, which means they’re offering so many different products and ranges. Definitely independent stores are becoming rare with all the major brands doing their own branded stores. The introduction of the B2B platforms and Brandscope has definitely changed the game of reordering then getting product in store quicker.
You have always got a core group of surfers that will shop with you. Personally, I know numerous people that will phone you from Adelaide, order a board and wettie from you and then drive 3 hours to pick it up. What’s your secret? Why are Adelaide surfers travelling down to you instead of shopping closer to home?
Probably the excuse of getting out of the city coming down and scoring uncrowded waves could be the secret? Or maybe it’s the fact that we’ve always aimed to get to know our customers. Over the years we’ve built genuine friendships with the customers that regularly travel down. They know all the staff, the town and can trust us when they order a new board for example.
You’ve always been an advocate of new brands and products. What’s impressed you lately?
We’ve been frothing on Patagonia, it’s my favourite brand at the moment. We love the premium quality of everything they make, lifetime warranty and their environmental ethos. Also another similar premium brand we just got in store and is going really well is YETI, the range of premium coolers and tumblers have done well with the fishermen, tradies and surfers. The customers love the premium products and are now looking for these qualities in products and brands. It also helps that the staff get a lot more excited when a customer is looking at these premium brand as they know it will be big spend.
For those reading that haven’t heard of The Robe Easter Classic, it’s a bit of an iconic event in SA. It’s attracted a few WSL and QS surfers along the way and hosted some helleva parties. Can you tell us how the event started?
Before the store was a surf shop it was a café called ‘Barnies’. They used to do a brekky for $1, which was a coffee, weatbix and banana and as you can imagine it attracted the local surfers. But from what I can recall all the surf crew used to hang around a café, and one day my dad decided that they should have a surf comp. The first year’s prize money was $10 and the surf was so flat the winner was decided by a paddle race. Since then it’s grown with the whole SA community getting around it, which has been amazing. Over the years we’ve had some pretty big presentation nights, so much so that we’ve been banned from having them in every place in Robe.
The event is also celebrating its 50th year anniversary this year. How has the event important for the shop, the Robe community and SA surfers?
The event is the second longest running surfing event in Australia, only behind Bells by a couple of years. It’s become such a great event for the local and SA surfers in general, and it’s more about getting everyone together than a full serious contest. It’s good to see all the surfers get motivated and push their surfing. The event merch has also almost turned into the most important part of the event! Each year the demand for it gets bigger and bigger and we sell out. Every second person that comes in the shop is asking for this year already.
Being an operator in a regional town always has its differences. What do you see the biggest challenges, and also opportunities being located in a small regional town?
Juggling staff is tough. Robe as a town is so seasonal and being almost too busy in the summer peak then so quiet for the rest of the year. So having to having enough staff members peak time and then having enough hours for them when its quiet to keep the staff happy has been our biggest challenge. Saying that we’re lucky to have a few good core staff members throughout the year.
There are so many things happening within the industry and surfing at the moment. I’d love to hear what your thoughts on the industry at the moment are?
Kelly Slater’s wave pool is incredible! A man made wave producing such a quality wave is mind blowing. It’s exciting what the future holds with it.
I feel that of some the surf ranges can stagnate with labels copying what’s hot at the moment from other labels and then just rebranding it. One season it’s hybrid shorts, then next everyone is doing dad caps. It feels that some brands are losing their individuality. Also, I feel the majors need to remember that it’s the independent stores that got them most of the way to where they are now, and the struggles we face against online stores.
So we’re ticking off the 50th Robe Easter Classic in a few months. What else is on the cards for 2018?
Our shop brand is one of our biggest selling categories, so looking to build that more will be a focus. We can always rely on that it won’t be discounted online or in a multi branded store down the road.