SAN FRANCISCO – Once the sport of a hip subculture, surfing has drawn more than a million newcomers in the last decade, all searching for the perfect wave.
That popularity has led to a fierce battle in the state’s surf industry for market share between longtime manufacturers and retailers of surf gear and new shops and production plants in Northern California.
As the number of surfers in the country has doubled from 1.2 million in 1990 to 2.4 million in 2001, the market also doubled to $3.8 billion in the past decade in the United States. That figure, from Board Track of Trabuco Canyon, includes surfboards, accessories and clothing, but it doesn’t include surf tours, camps, videos, movies and magazines.
Jack O’Neill, 79, started O’Neill Inc. with a surf shop at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the early 1950’s. He developed neoprene wet suits to help surfers deal with the icy waters off the Northern California coast.
Now, his company, one of Northern California’s surf commerce powerhouses, has other local surf shops concerned.
O’Neill has bought a restaurant across from Marin Surf Sports store in Mill Valley, hoping to open its fifth retail store.
Marin Surf Sports owner Jochen Wentzel, 40, hasn’t had any competition for almost two decades, and he’s worried.
“The surfing industry is a kind of tricky industry, and the profit margin is not so great here,” he said. “Owning a surf store is more of a passion, not a ticket to economic security.”
Mike Locatelli, O’Neill’s retail manager, said the company had invested a lot of money in Mill Valley.
“We feel the people up there deserve a first-class shop,” he said.
A similar situation happened in Santa Cruz, when O’Neill opened a store across the street from the Pacific Wave surf shop in 2000.
Todd Noland, owner of Pacific Wave, said the company has felt O’Neill’s presence and has made adjustments in its business to compensate.
“We focused more on skateboards and some brands that we have that aren’t across the street,” he said.
But the O’Neill store is feeling the crunch from the dot-com meltdown that brought new surfers to Santa Cruz.
“Everyone wanted to live here, and they had disposable income, buying three or four wet suits and three or four surfboards at a time. We don’t see any of that anymore,” Locatelli said. “It has all dried up.”
But one such scenario has had a happy ending, so far.
When Wise Surfboards, which San Francisco surfer Bob Wise had opened in a landlocked area of the city in 1968, moved across the street from Big Yank Board Sports in 1999, Big Yank got worried.
The new surf shop had opened as close to the beach and as far away from Wise Surfboards as possible in 1994. So Wise’s decision to move near Big Yank surprised the company, said store manager Mark Abbott.
“Our first reaction was worry, but it has brought us more walk-up customers,” he said. “Now we’re very happy to be next door to Bob.”