Owner of Slimes and Core Boardstore winner at the 2016 Surf Industry Awards
By Reggae Elliss
Paul Green has been in surf retail since 1985, when he opened a classic, old-school surf shop at Toowoon Bay on the NSW Central Coast. At the time Greeny was one of the top competitive surfers in the country and a surf shop seemed like the perfect way to fund is passion. Over the past 31 years Greeny has ridden all the highs and lows of surf retail, including a period where he got out of hardware and focused on successful shopping Centre stores which were all about soft goods.
However Greeny is a surfer at heart and was drawn back to surfboards, opening his Erina board store in 2005. Then in 2011 he opened a second board store in Newcastle, and now has four stores, the two Slimes Board stores, and two “shopping centre” stores, one is another Slimes, the other a Rip Curl store. Both are located in Erina Fair, one of the biggest shopping centres on the Central Coast
Greeny’s board stores won the coveted 2016 Core Boardstore of the Year at the SBIA Surf Industry awards. Given that, and the fact he has been in surf retail for over three decades, we thought it’d be a good time to catch up for a chat.
Three decades in the surf retail industry is serious longevity. What do you put it down to?
I think it just being true, doing the right thing by the people who come to your store. Just listening what good reps – sorry good account managers – have to say, just that sort of thing. You can’t be narrow-minded – you have to be open minded and willing to turn the ship a bit faster.
I think that’s when we get frustrated with the big companies – when you can’t turn the ship fast enough sometimes. Retailers can – you just have to do that. If something is working and you hear that a few times from your account managers that something is working, then have a go at it. If it is working, then turn the ship and go that direction. That and just being flexible and not being full-blown on the floor salesman. I don’t like my staff being like that, it’s just about being honest and helping the customer.
You won the Core Board Store award at the SBIA awards. After 31 years it must be good to still have core board store and be recognised for it.
Yeah, I started off that way and had a core surfboard store for the first 11 years of retail. I’d entered a partnership with my sister three years after opening my first shop. We had a core store and it was one of the only two places to go on the coast to buy hardware. We had a lot of wetsuits, leashes, and all that sort of stuff. Then the shopping centre thing swallowed me up – it was the peak of retail and we made good money, life was pretty good. I swore I’d never go back to selling surfboards because the margins were low, the headaches that would come with some customers who don’t quite understand what a board does, how they break easily… all that sort of stuff. Then I personally steered away from surfing for six or seven years… I only surfed a couple of times a year, got right into wake boarding. I had a bit of a switch, had a young family at the time.
How did you get back into hardware?
Well, things started getting a little tougher and I had this big warehouse that was probably costing me more that it should. Then I found this shop on the main road and that was pretty big and I thought I’ll make that my warehouse, but have a board shop at the front – put 500 boards in there. Just have a different approach. I thought I’d turn the warehouse into a shop as well and hopefully the retail sales would cover the cost and I’ll break even.
How did the warehouse/shop look? Did you keep it basic or fit-out the front as a retail store?
Yeah, we didn’t just make it a warehouse with a lot of boards. We did give it good frontage, did a decent fit-out and set it up properly as a core store with a lot of wetsuits. We had some clothing on the floor, but it was part of the back-up stock for the fashion stores. That was over 11 years ago and we had success with the hardware store, so every year I threw more money at it, made it look better. The first thing you see when you walk in the store is 500 surfboards, a couple of hundred wetsuits, all the fins, leashes, so you have the feeling of hardware, but in the back corner was all these racks of clothing. It’ just got better and better every year. And I got back into surfing, got my froth on like I did when I was a kid. It worked really well – I was back in the game.
What do you put that down to? Are more people buying boards off the racks rather than going to a shaper and getting custom orders?
It’s definitely based on the manufacturers doing their models and making it easier. I think when I first came back in the game it was when Slater was winning J-bay, the boards were narrow and that was influencing the average performance boards. Those boards didn’t work for the average surfer or older surfers and at that time we were also selling a lot of mals. Then it all started to change – the different models started happening, wider boards, then they the literage volume came into it and everything got easier. We also carry 60 to 80 demo boards so we let people try before they buy, try and get them on the right model, help them find their volume.
So I could walk in and whoever is in the store will ask, “ What’s your weight, surfing ability, type of waves you usually surf? OK, you should try one of these two boards,
Yeah, if they’re unsure about handing over $850 we can go, OK take this board for a surf and let us know how you go. If they come in just stoked, they just go straight to the rack and buy that board. They’re confident that the board they buy is going to be 99% the same as the board they tried.
So, with that, what lead to expansion into Newcastle?
So -allied friends, account managers. (Laughs) They felt that Newcastle was missing a good hardware store and one of them said to me, “Why don’t you approach Mark Richards? I think he might have had enough of retail.” I’d only ever met MR once before, I didn’t know him at all. Anyway this guy lined me up to meet with Mark, we met and I threw some ideas at him. It just so happened he was keen to get out of retail – he wanted to just shape boards. He helped me find the location, and I put 80 boards of MR’s on the floor. We did that four and half years ago. Mark shapes all of my own boards now, and he still loves coming in and talking to customers. We’ll contact MR and we’ll make a time and Mark will come into the store and chat, take an order. Every so often on a Saturday we have a meet and greet with MR in the store, hang out with MR and talk bullshit. He still enjoys that side of it, but I think he’s more enjoying not being disturbed on a daily basis when he just wants to go out and shape boards.
What boards do you stock besides the MRs?
It’s the same as what we do on the Central coast. Mainly have big range of Merricks, JS, MR obviously, DHDs – we don’t stock local, because obviously if someone is going to buy a local brand of board, they’ll go straight to the shaper.
That’s where it works great with MR, ‘cause he doesn’t want anyone going direct to him. They come into the store.
Mick Adam, manager of Slimes Newcastle with another MR classic
With that, the Core board store, there seems to be strength in surfboards. Do you see surfboards having a healthy growth?
I do see growth in surfing, a lot of people want to surf, and the boardriders clubs are strong. I know on the Central Coast they’re strong. In North Shelly we’ve get closed to 200 competitive members and another 100 social members. It’s crazy. The boarder riders clubs are strong, so there’s contact growth and surf schools all seem to be busy, so that’s feeding us customers.
“Hardware keeps selling unless you have a flat spell for two or three weeks. If you have constant swell, things are good.”
Are there periods in the year when the board sales back off? How’s winter for you?
Hardware keeps selling unless you have a flat spell for two or three weeks. If you have constant swell, things are good. People are constantly surfing and realise their wetsuit is wearing out, or they want a new board, winter is coming so they want a step-up board or a performance board because the waves are better. They’ve just been riding a small wave summer board. These days, the average surfer has two boards in their quiver, some have more. Not many have just the one all rounder.
Plus not many board manufacturers have a shop-front. I remember when I was a grom, all of the factories in Brookvale had a show-room.
Yeah, well I think not all manufacturers can be retailers. They are better off focusing on what they do best – making surfboards. I know Channel Island have On Board and we’ve seen all the big four players in the game try retail outlets and some of them have done OK. But I think it’s better if they don’t all have retail shops. If they do, it doesn’t really give us a reason to back them.
Well, you carry 500 boards in each store and there’s other retailers carrying similar numbers of boards, so from a manufacturer’s point of view, they are going to get the exposure and rack space without having the additional headache of retailing.
Yeah, especially if we are all doing the right thing by each other. We all know there are a lot of retailers who are not doing the right thing by the manufacturers, so I can see the frustration for the manufacturers. They see a store in a great location, but the owner is dong a bad job selling surfboards because he doesn’t care about his business. So there have been times when they thought they had to do it themselves.
I suppose it’s like any industry. There are people who are really good at what they do and other’s who don’t really know what they are doing.
I think that half the time, a lot of retailers don’t give a rats about their business. I see that with the SBIA and being part of ISRA (Independent Surf Retailers Association), which has been amazing for me. We get to share all that information with other retailers who are non-conflicting and it’s beneficial to my business. It’s the same has having a really good account manager. If you can go and sit down with someone from a different area and tell them I’m selling a lot of this and then he say’s “I’ve just got on to this and it’s killing it”, or “this is my AMEX deal” or “my bank is doing this for me” – we share that sort of information. They’re maybe just on or two things a meeting that are gold and I now in the past with ISRA we’ll approach someone who owns a store in an area where there’s no one involved, and some of them couldn’t be bothered. It’s two or three meetings a year – really, you couldn’t be bothered.
Do you think it’s because they don’t understand that’s there are benefits, or that they’ll learn from other retailers?
I think they’re just in their own little bubble. They’re kidding themselves. It’s all good to think you’ve got it covered and are doing everything right, but why wouldn’t you listen to someone else you can get fresh ideas from?
Talking about the SBIA – you seemed pretty happy when you won the Core Boardstore Award last month.
Yeah, I was pretty happy. I just think my two board stores are core board stores. The percentage of surfboards and core product has always outweighed the fashion in the stores. There are a lot of good retailers out there with core stores. Sometimes I thought maybe the term “Core” wasn’t defined properly. How do you balance it out? Is it someone who can carry 200 boards on the floor and have a heap of fashion? Is that core? Or is the guy who has more boards and less fashion? But, yeah, I was stoked to win.
What are your thoughts on the Surf Industry Awards? You ‘ve been around a long time and a lot of people are cynical about stuff like that.
Yeah, they are and I suppose I was one of them. I went to the very first awards night and I hadn’t been to another until this year’s awards. I don’t go to too many roundtables, but I did see huge improvements this year. Each time I go to a roundtable it does seem to be getting a lot better. There is a lot of good information going around, and I will definitely be attending more. Obviously when you start something off, it’s not always 100% right, and there’s always room for improvement. I think the people on the board for the past five years have really improved it massively. I just hope that more retailers get on board and support the SBIA.
“That leads me to think there are a lot of bad retailers out there that just don’t care enough about their business.”
The main drive behind it is to enhance the retailers and their businesses – the more successful retailers are the better it is for the brands and the industry overall. It seems that as more people do attend roundtables, they’re sort of surprised: “Oh, wow, that actually was worthwhile.”
I think the wholesalers should get as much out of it as the retailer, but at the moment, the wholesalers are putting more effort in than the retailers out there. That leads me to think there are a lot of bad retailers out there that just don’t care enough about their business. They are narrow minded and just don’t have a wide enough vision on what they should be doing.
31 years is a long time in any business. You must have good staff and good involvement from them.
And bad, I had one who took me for about $200 grand.
That’s right. How did you recover from that?
Sometimes I think I still am recovering from that. I had to get an overdraft to get through it. They took $190,000 and all the other things add up – had to pay GST on it – sometimes I think I could have kept my mouth shut and just worn it; I shot myself in the foot even more. But you know, with staff it’s just a roller coaster. In our industry we get to August September and are starting to look for new staff. If they are still there in February you know they’re good. If they’re not, then you just have them for that busy period and then they are gone. But 90% of our staff is just casual.
One of the things they were talking about at the roundtable, and in general media, was the seasonal drops and department stores having winter coats and jackets landing in store in February and they wonder why they haven’t sold them by May. Do you think we need to change that?
Yeah, everyone has been seeing the same product for three or four months. As retailers have to start buying the right product at the right time. When they said four seasons – I voted for six.
Well, there is some discussion now about extra drops.
It has to be fresh. But the retailers have to remember that the manufacturers are supplying for all of Australia – Victoria is different from Noosa. We understand that they carry a bit of everything, but we have to start buying it differently. I have been a victim of not following that lead. It’ll be interesting to see where this discussion goes.
Thanks Greeny, appreciate your time.