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Tiffany Montgomery
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Volcom’s Richard Woolcott on taking risks

By Tiffany Montgomery
September 11, 2007 6:02 AM

One of the things I talked about with Richard Woolcott at ASR is this issue of "sameness" in the surf industry. Richard is the CEO of Volcom in Costa Mesa.

Design guru Michael Tomson, the founder of Gotcha, told me a few days ago that he thought surf companies were playing it too safe these days and everyone's product was looking the same.

I asked Richard about that, and he sent his thoughts via e-mail early Sunday morning after our conversation.

"I've been thinking about the creativity/newness in the market question and I think it's a good one. In thinking about it more, I believe in order for a newness to really impact the market both the manufacturer and retailer need to work together to get the right pieces placed on the floor. There is always a certain risk that comes with this as there are no guarantees that a new style will fly off the shelves. However, in time it could become a hit. What I often see is that we might design something fresh and exciting but it will not book well and ends up getting dropped from the line. However, if we feel strong about it we will try it the next season and maybe then it will take hold. It's really a timing issue of when the market is ready for a new look or style.


The other point I see is that our industry has become very sophisticated. There are a lot of great brands out there designing and producing great product. The bar has been raised as everyone makes good stuff. In order to stand out at this level of competition, you really need to be on your game."

Richard and I didn't talk about PacSun, but boy, did I get an earful about the industry's biggest customer during my two days at ASR. A lot of people asked about my OC METRO interview with PacSun CEO Sally Frame Kasaks, which has pushed a few buttons in the industry.

Some blame this "sameness" Michael Tomson mentioned on PacSun and how they tinker with product, ordering design changes. I heard from a lot of young brands at ASR who won't sell to them. Many of those owners had worked at larger companies that sold to PacSun and don't want to go down that road. They told stories of working hard to put a line together, then having PacSun ask for changes that included copying design elements from other brands. All this merging together of styles from different brands each season leaves everything looking the same, many told me.

To be fair, there are many other retailers who could take risks and put something new on the floor. And many manufacturers could also create bolder styles.

During my interview with Sally, she told me she heard the complaints about tinkering when she came aboard, and the company doesn't plan to meddle in design as much. Instead, she said they are building their own design team and focusing on making their own product. She's also in a tight spot because so many other stores at the mall are now selling surf brands, especially department stores. Plus, there's Zumiez and Hollister, the growing gorilla that sells surf lifestyle clothing. Sally's trying to figure out how to make PacSun stand out. She really wants some fresh brands. It will be interesting to see if some up and comers end up selling to PacSun's 900 stores and if the tense relationship right now between the industry and its biggest customer eases up in coming months.

If you have any thoughts on the subject, feel free to e-mail me at tiffany@shop-eat-surf.com.

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