Independent Spotlight: Active Ride Shop

NEW YORK — Twenty years ago, Active Ride Shop opened with one store — in Chino, Calif. — and two employees.

Shane Wallace, president of Active, was still in high school when he and his dad, John Wallace, partnered on the first 1,000-sq.-ft. location in 1989. The mission: to serve the growing and underserved skate market in Southern California.

Today, after three consecutive years of aggressive expansion, Active Ride Shop boasts 29 stores across Southern California, including its newest flagship in surf mecca Huntington Beach.

But even as the company has grown to roughly 500 employees, Wallace has kept some things the same. One is the family-run business model: Apart from the father and son, two of Shane’s brothers and John’s wife work at Active. Also a part of the company is another family: the Goodwins. Nine of its members work in various positions at Active, including purchasing and marketing director Bobby Goodwin and his twin brother, corporate planning manager Tommy Goodwin.

The other longstanding tradition at Active is the retailer’s dedication to carrying, selling and promoting the best in skate shoes. “We’re known as brand builders in footwear,” said Bobby Goodwin. “Our customers know they can get what they’re looking for here.”

According to Shane Wallace, Active entered the footwear world in earnest in 1991, when he opened the company’s second store in nearby Rancho Cucamonga. Then in 1993, the store created a dedicated shoe wall. “Airwalk, Simple, Etnies and DC were pretty much the brands that helped launch our skate footwear charge,” he said.

After growing steadily throughout the 1990s (Active counted eight stores by 2000), Wallace and his team started an aggressive expansion plan in 2006, opening four stores that year and seven in 2007.

In 2008, the company relocated two existing locations and bowed five new ones, the latest over Thanksgiving week. But that may be the last for a while, Wallace said. Though the retailer had been actively prospecting for 2010 and 2011, all plans have been put on hold.

“It’s tough right now. In our 20 years, this is the most interesting and most difficult environment to move in I’ve seen,” Wallace said, adding that he would wait to up the store count until the economy improves or until Active finds an investment partner to help take the chain national.

Though store expansion has slowed, a series of openings during the past few years has helped Active refine its retail formula, said Tommy Goodwin.

According to Goodwin, Active has put the focus on open-air shopping centers, alongside restaurants and retailers that also target high school to college-age shoppers. “We want to put our store where there’s the right energy,” he said.

Active has also tweaked the size of its locations, which in the past have been as large as 9,000 square feet. “Within the last couple of years, we’ve gotten a little more sophisticated on the business side,” Tommy Goodwin said. Balancing occupancy cost and turnover, he explained, has given the retailer a comfortable size of 5,500 to 6,000 square feet.

Active also has been upping its focus on store design. Mira Loma, Calif.-based JPS Design has been on board for the last three shops, and Goodwin and Wallace say their latest execution may be the best yet. “Huntington Beach is probably the end result of what we’ve been working for,” Goodwin said.

With twice the budget of a standard opening to work with, the goal for the 5,500-sq.-ft. location in Huntington was to show off the merchandise in a skatefriendly environment. “We try to focus on what makes us stand out — which is hard goods and footwear,” Goodwin said. “So we spotlight them in the stores.”

The shop’s walnut and maple fixtures (maple because it’s a primary material used in skateboards) offset a polished concrete floor for an urban feel. “It’s very conducive to skateboarding,” he said. “It’s nice, but it’s not too nice where [skateboarding] would mess it up.”

And like other Active locations, the shoe wall is the store’s centerpiece. Instead of using slatwall, the new wall features thick shelves and lighting to highlight the product. “We wanted the shoes to stand out, but also to have a real clean aesthetic,” Goodwin said, adding ruefully, “I do wish we had better lighting— it’s so important.”

In Huntington Beach, as at most Active locations, the shoes are set back from apparel — a testament to their importance. “You have to get through everything else to get to the footwear,” Goodwin said.

Shoes make up 25 to 30 percent of the store’s overall sales, depending on the season, with approximately 300,000 pairs sold each year. For Active’s young, primarily male shoppers, footwear is a destination.

Among the store’s skate brands are Nike SB and Nike 6.0, Vans, Fallen, Circa, Adidas and Lakai. The retailer has also added non-skate footwear brands, including Alife, Toms and Sperry Top-Sider, and this spring it will be one of the few retailers to launch with Converse’s new Cons core line.

Special makeups and Active-exclusive colorways are key to the sales strategy: A recent exclusive with Vans, priced at $130, has been selling well, Bobby Goodwin said. (The Vans style is at the high end of Active’s price points, which range from $30 to $150.)

And creating strong relationships with vendors is also a priority. For example, in both the Huntington Beach and San Diego locations, Active reached out to hometown brands to create dedicated spaces.

For the 6,000-sq.-ft. location that opened in September near San Diego’s Petco Center, the company asked Vista, Calif.-based DC Shoes to fill two 12-foot wall spaces.

According to Mark Miller, GM of the skate brand, designing and financing the buildout was a natural extension of the shop-in-shop-like spaces the brand had created in other Active locations. “We believe that specialty retailers, such as Active, that support DC’s core sports and core values, are the foundation of the relationship with [our core] consumer,” he said. “We feel strongly that this buildout, as well as all the other things we do with Active, are a great investment.”

Don Brown, SVP of marketing for Lake Forest, Calif.- based Sole Technology, said that teaming up with Active for a similar buildout at the nearby Huntington Beach location was a natural as well. “Active is definitely one of our top accounts, not only in volume, but in image,” he said. “They’re like family to us, so when they approached us and asked us to be involved, we were excited to get that going.”

Sole Tech’s 12-foot space showcases approximately 70 footwear SKUs across the company’s Etnies, eS and Emerica brands. Sole Tech also has a 5-foot-by- 7-foot table that it has dedicated to the history of the Etnies brand. “Huntington Beach is such a huge traffic area, which really zeros in on our core demographic of 12- to 18-year-olds,” Brown said. “In challenging times, it’s great to have that much presence on the wall.”

Looking toward the new year, Wallace is cautious, but positive. “We’re playing it very conservative for 2009,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t rule out store closings, if needed. “We’ll do what makes sense for our business.”

While sales in 2008 were flat, with many stores seeing declines in their average purchase amounts, there was a bright spot: Active’s direct-to-consumer Web business is up.

And overall, Wallace is optimistic about the future. “The Southern California customer is resilient,” he said. “They’re a great customer. They bounce back, they love fashion and they love footwear.”�

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