Column: Navigating the void

K-5 closed its doors this year. The Poway and Oceanside locations shut in February, but their flagship Encinitas branch remained open through March 1. 

And I’ll be honest. That was the only branch that meant anything to me. Oceanside made itself obsolete by appealing exclusively to SUP surfers (read people with money, time and large cars.) I have one of those things.

I’d always heard positive things about the Poway store, but never made the trek. I have a feeling that’s a common story.

But Encinitas had a good store. It was one of the first local shops to carry Patagonia. I always appreciated that choice. As a Volcom-obsessed youth, I remember it being the obvious destination for overpriced, ergonomic denim.

And K-5 Encinitas was a regular meeting spot for my circle of friends in high school. The store is a source of nostalgia for me. But not in a way that would have generated much significant revenue.

K-5 owner Jurgen Schulz cited consumer-purchasing habits as a contributor to the chain’s decline. In a February 2013 statement to Shop-Eat-Surf.com, Schulz said, “At the end of the day K-5 lost the trust and support of its customers.”

The full burden of local business can’t be placed on the shoulders of consumers. That’s simply bad customer service. And it’s unrealistic.

In a February 2013 interview with Transworld Business, Schulz said, “For us, as a neighborhood store, when you came and got your first board it allowed us to establish that relationship.

Now over time people are getting their first board from places like Costco, and you don’t have time to establish those relationships.”

That may be true. A lot of people may have bought their first board at K-5. I didn’t. The selection was limited, they didn’t have brands that interested me and the pricing was pretty standard. I didn’t go the Costco route either, and I don’t think those are the only options, though that seems to be an implied claim by Schulz.

My first board was a discounted, custom project by a local shaper, and I’m fine with that.

For future boards, I stuck with the Craigslist market until I earned a paycheck with enough zeros to buy new.

I believe in local business, and I want to think that K-5 has a place in our community.

I also don’t think its closure is tied directly to the consumer. Schulz partly acknowledged this.

In the same Transworld Business interview, Schulz said, “There are so many things that contributed to our particular situation. But I believe over-distribution by most of the brands is the main reason.”

Having worked inside a few brands, I’d venture to say it’s a symptom of the industry.

A lot of brands want to build fast. They’re following Neff’s Snoop Dogg Moment, and Diamond’s meteoric rise of flashy, misguided, bling-wearing youth. Brands are overlapping with celebrities, and paying illogical sums for piggybacking rights they can’t afford.

The result isn’t brand longevity. It’s interval success, and it’s short-lived — fewer niches, more generic. Brands have over-saturated the market, and retailers have made the mistake of accommodation.

The action sports industry, both retailers and brands, is navigating two territories — department store enterprise and category loyalism. These worlds do not coexist easily.

I’m sorry to see K-5 go. It was a decent store — understated, authentic and at times, somewhat original.

It was a familiar destination amidst the strip malls of El Camino Real.

And it’s been unsettling for me to meander by and witness the hollow retail space and the void in the signage.

Spencer Hirsch is a marketing professional, community worker and writer. Follow @spencerhirsch on Twitter and Instagram, and email him at spencerhirsch@gmail.com.

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