By Dylan Beach
Aquatique has been a family run surf shop on the South Coast of NSW for over 30 years. Now running 3 stores scattered throughout Norwa and Huskisson, we caught up with and talked shop General Manager Justin Bellwood.
Three decades in the surf industry is serious longevity for a store. What do you put it down to?
It all gets down to hard work, passion, employing great people, thinking outside the box and making more good decisions than bad. Being a family owned and run store for 30 years has many advantages. Coming home to a house full of Havaianas boxes for a bit of quality “family time” was always fun. Many of our long-term staff are basically family now as well. Some of them now have their kids working here. We have never been scared to try something new. Whether that be a POS system that is not used in the industry but we see merit in, to testing brands that are not traditional surf labels. Establishing amazing relationships with both industry representatives and other retailers, local and national, has been instrumental in the success of our business.
How do you think the surf and retail industry has evolved over that time?
Idealistically, from a “frothin little grommet” to a “salty legend”. Realistically, as an industry, we have lost our way at times but if we all learn from our mistakes we can all move forward together. Back in “the day” good growth was so easy. There was no oversupply, quality was never an issue, internet shopping didn’t exist, so you had to go to your local store. Imagine how we would have performed with the analytics we have today?
Over 30 years we have seen such an incredible change. An explosion of categories offered. One thing that hasn’t changed is the credibility and history of the amazing brands we sell. In a market place flooded with cheap, generic “stuff” we are striving to “standout” from the crowd. Trying to be an aspirational store for all your surf lifestyle needs.
Further on, what are the major challenges and opportunities you see in the industry at the moment?
Attracting great staff and their retention is getting more difficult. One of the big challenges for us is discount pressure from both the vertical models (remember when 20% off got customers excited?) and the internet (Amazon!!). Maintaining “relevance” to our customers is of ongoing importance. Cost pressures from all angles are relentless.
Independent surf retail has the opportunity and flexibility to differentiate itself from “run of the mill” retail by constantly evolving to customer demands.
You touched on staff, being in more of a regional area of NSW how do you find and retain good staff? Any training advice you’d like to pass on for the rest of us?
It’s a massive challenge for us. Being 2 hours from Sydney we naturally bleed a lot of our youth to the bright lights of the city. We have traditionally had a lot of success employing uni students. They are bright, driven young people who “need” to work to cover all their bills. We are big fans of the SBIA training module and use it as part of our new staff inductions. It’s an excellent, cost effective resource that really adds a high level of “professionalism” to our business. In the future we would love to see the modules expanded to cover both brand and specific category training (eg, watches, sunnies and wetsuits). We continue our brand training sessions regularly and encourage ours reps to provide instore training to both new and existing staff when time permits.
You’re a finalist for the NSW State Retailer, and was nominated by brands as a Breakout Retailer of the Year this year leading into next months SBIA Surf Industry Awards. How important for your team and yourself to be recognized like that?
Just to be nominated amongst the quality of the other finalists is a huge honor. It‘s such a great reward for all the hard work our team puts in. We obviously have some amazing competition in NSW which is a constant inspiration to grow and improve. The main take for me, is that as good a job as we may think we are doing, we can always do better. It’s a cliché, but all the nominees are winners.
You said today you pride yourself as being a community driven store. Can you elaborate on what that means for you?
We are so lucky to have been, and continue to be, supported by our wonderful local community down here. There is no better advertising for the business than being able to support local teams, clubs and charities and the letters and pictures on the office wall fill us with a sense of pride. We are privileged to sponsor two local surf clubs which includes the mighty Culburra club, as well as numerous local rippers.
During a recent roundtable on the Gold Coast there was a lot of talk about the timing of ranges from different brands and the need for injection and quick to market ranges are becoming more relevant. How do you plan for each season to satisfy your customer
Firstly, Australia is a massive place, which often renders the whole notion of season’s difficult to deal with. We have been extremely regimented (some would say stubborn) in sticking to our sales reports for many years now and trying to buy what we think we will sell for the season. I like the idea of referring to the ranges as Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4 as it takes the “seasonality” pressure off the buy period. Having access to data at any level of detail you need has been paramount to the success of the business. As reorder stock from our suppliers continues to get tighter and tighter, we see accurate forecasting as a major focus for us moving forward.
So 30 years down, what’s next for Aquatique?
Haven’t got any plans to change what we are doing. We will continue to “polish” all areas of the business. Constantly work on “efficiency” in all areas. I guess after 30 years most changes will be pretty subtle?