I have in front of me the September 1989 issue of Transworld Skateboarding. Gary Owens is skating a pool in Hawaii on the cover; inside, there’s a picture of Mark “Gator” Rogowski posing shirtless mid-stall, wearing Swatch kneepads, a cross necklace, sunglasses, and a sideways painter’s cap. If I flip to the back, there are mail-order ads for skateboard decks. The going price, depending on brand, is around $42 (£30).
All of this is to say that while some things in skateboarding have changed a lot over the last 28 years, the cost of boards has essentially stayed the same.
When I started buying skateboards in the late 90s, pro model decks were around $45 (£33). The shops I grew up with in East County San Diego have all closed, but about 20 minutes away is a shop called Pacific Drive, where pro models are still $45. I live in New York now, where skateboards are slightly pricier; at Labor in Chinatown, they’re $53 (£39), and at KCDC, near the VICE office in Williamsburg, they’re around $55 (£40). (Almost everything costs more in New York; a Chipotle burrito, for example, is $1.55 more here than the national average.) Every skateboarder I know—from around the country—has had a similar experience. Forty-two dollars in 1989 is the equivalent of $84 today, but somehow, give or take a few bucks, skateboards have stayed the same price, almost completely resisting inflation. While there are many potential reasons for the stagnant prices, it seems to be a rather extreme version of what economists call "price stickiness."
The first thing to realize is that skate shops make very little money from decks. As one KCDC employee told me, “Anyone that owns a shop will tell you, you’re not in it to make money off the skateboards. The skateboards are here because we’re providing a service for a community, but we’re making most of our money on soft goods and shoes.” Chris LaRue, a sponsored skater who’s worked at Pacific Drive for a decade, told me his shop usually buys boards from brands for between $35–37, giving them $8-10 profit per board. He says boards have been $45 for as long as he’s been at the shop. Part of the reason for this is competition with other shops and online retailers, but they also want to make sure kids can buy boards. “My boss always says, ‘If one shop’s doing good, as long as you’re true to the skate scene, your shop is going to be doing good too, because the skate scene is thriving.’”
One way stores like Pacific Drive supplement their income is through boards branded with their own graphics, also known as “shop decks.” They get these directly from manufacturers for around $15 and sell them for $30; it’s a higher margin product that also appeals to consumers looking to save money. Since they first appeared in the 90s, shop decks have been controversial, as brands view them as a threat to their bottom line. “We do get a lot of flack [from brands], but we’re a manufacturer,” Grant Burns, who owns BBS Manufacturing, a company that makes boards for several major companies, told me. “It makes it more difficult for the brands, because the brands are just an extra middleman that have to run a business.” For manufacturers like BBS, shop decks are a way to unload overstock; Burns estimates that they make up 5% of his sales. Similarly, shops say these decks are a necessary part of their business. As LaRue put it, “It’s one of the only hard goods that we really make any money on. Not to say we’re all about the money, but you have to make money.”
Low margins and shop decks help explain how stores are able to keep prices down, but wholesale prices haven’t gone up either. Burns told me that the price has been stagnant since around 1982, “when boards started to change from popsicles to short, no-nose boards that were ten inches wide.”
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“How did [the price] stay there? A lot of different reasons,” Burns said.
“BBS started producing in 1996 in the US, and we made a deck for around $12.50. We would ship it off to somebody that would silkscreen a graphic on and it might bring the cost up to $18. It was a real artistic, painstaking process that cost quite a bit of money to produce. We would sell that to a brand like Expedition or Arcade. They would get a deck with graphic for $18 and they would sell it to a distributor for $27, the distributor would sell to retail for $30-35, and it would sell for $50. There were a lot of hands that things went through.”
A few key changes in how boards are manufactured actually lowered wholesale costs. First, heat transfer images brought the cost of silkscreening closer to $1 per board. “When you take away a few dollars, by the time you send it through everybody’s hands and they have to make their margins, it helps out quite a bit. That saves a couple years of inflation right there.”
The other big savings came in the early 2000s, when manufacturers began making boards in China or, in BBS’s case, Mexico. “We took our average labor cost at the time from $13 an hour in the US to down to $4 an hour. We were able to drop the price of our decks from $12.50 to $10.”
Furthermore, brands are upping margins by increasingly eschewing the middlemen. Many have cut out distributors and are selling to stores themselves. In some cases they’re even selling straight to skaters via their online shops and subscription services. This mirrors the shop deck situation, in that skate shops view direct-to-consumer sales as a threat to their business and brands view it as necessary for survival. “I don’t want to name any names, but someone came out with a subscription thing and got into trouble with some of their retail shops,” Burns told me. “We’re constantly in a contest to become more efficient, and there’s some winners and some losers. Some brands have really stalled out in opening online sales [because] they don’t want to step on retailers’ shoes. Because they do that, they remain really popular with the retailers, but is that going to be the model in five years? I don’t know.”
Other issues come into play, too. As big name board sponsors have struggled, shoe sponsors have become the dominant source of pros’ income. In turn, pros with significant shoe deals have left major board companies to start their own brands; these companies, with low overheads and less need to turn a profit, further threaten the major players. “I can think of at least three or four brands where the guys are like, ‘I’m doing this deck brand but I really don’t give a shit [about profit] because all my money comes from my shoe sponsor. Maybe I’m even putting a little money in, but I want a deck brand,’” Burns says.
Tod Swank is in a unique position to gauge the health of the skate industry. A former pro, since 1989 he’s run Tum Yeto, the company that currently distributes Foundation and Toy Machine boards, Pig Wheels, Ruckus trucks, and Dekline shoes. Additionally, Swank owns Watson Laminates, a skateboard manufacturer based in San Diego.
In his mind, skateboard brands can’t raise prices because “There’s so much product out there for so cheap.” Shop boards are part of the issue, but it’s also just so easy for anyone to start a small skate company and keep prices down. “You could buy 50 [boards] one time for almost the same price we get [thousands] for, and when you go to sell them, maybe you’re going to sell yours to a shop for a lot less because you’re one person that has no overhead and no insurance,” Swank says.
Even though Swank owns Watson and uses them for specialty boards, many Tum Yeto decks are now made in China and Mexico. Anything else would be economically unfeasible. “We used to put “Made in the USA” on all our boards, and nobody cared. There might be people out there who like Toy Machine, but when they see a Toy Machine board that’s $55 and a shop board that’s $30, most likely they’re going to go for a shop board.” And it’s not like boards made in China or Mexico are inferior. “A seven-ply maple skateboard deck is not rocket science. As long as whoever’s making it is doing an earnest job, the quality could be just as good as anywhere else,” he told me.
The problem is one of saturation. “Shops will sell boards for $45 and only make $10, when they should be selling them for $55 or $60, but they can’t because there’s another board right next to it selling for $30,” Swank said. When I asked him if he thinks there’ll be a correction—if shops will either raise prices or face closure—he was skeptical. “It seems like shops are always coming and going. We all know retail is hard, in pretty much any business. I don’t know if there is a correction. If wood shops catch on fire and there’s no supply coming out, then maybe that might change it.”
Ultimately, it seems like everyone in the industry—from shop employees to brands to manufacturers—agrees that decks should cost more. As Burns of BBS told me, “I’ve been upset at most of my customers because they’re afraid to raise their prices. It’s like, ‘I have to raise my prices on you, but the only thing that happens is you guys are getting weaker because your margins are getting squeezed.’ When my mom bought my $45 deck in 1988, she only made $20,000 or whatever. Families can afford a little more in a lot of cases. It’s necessary for brands to succeed and continue as a business. The same thing goes for skate shops. But they’re all too timid about doing it.” Shops and brands want kids to be able to afford to skate, but they don’t help anyone if they go out of business. “If you could do an article for a push that everyone should raise their prices, that would be great. You’d probably get a heck of a lot of crap for it.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.