Skateboard Deck

With big, online companies in the skateboard industry going after the same pool of customers as small, community-based shops, stores like Bustin Boards in Williamsburg are increasingly turning to digital marketing to attract sales from beyond the city’s boundaries.

The Grand Street shop has long been a popular destination for skateboard enthusiasts. Its walls are lined with custom, one-of-a-kind skateboard decks. Along with a sister location, Longboard Loft in Manhattan, the retailer has added to its avid following by sponsoring local skateboarding events and a branded, competitive riding team.

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That alone, however, is not enough. Bustin Boards has just increased its spending on digital advertising, especially Google Adwords and retargeted marketing, in which ads are served to those who have already visited the store’s site.The company has also ratcheted up its presence on Instagram, Tumblr and YouTube, posting monthly videos of its products, as well as riders competing and doing tricks.

Street-skating frontier

It’s working so far. Thirteen-year-old Bustin Boards, which also owns a third store, Bikle’s Snow, Skate & Surf in Hagerstown, Md., has averaged annual revenue growth of 28% for the past three years and is profitable. “Each time we release a video, we get a bump in sales online and in the stores,” said Cary Smith, the company’s marketing director.

Thanks to its abundant side-walks, New York City has long been a magnet for skateboarders–and that has traditionally made it easy for brick-and-mortar shops to attract foot traffic. NYSkateboarding.com lists about 20 local board shops. Bustin Boards even attracts international skate tourists, who come to the city just to buy a board.

“New York City is one of the last frontiers of street skating,” said James Rewolinski, founder of Labor Skate-shop on Canal Street. “It’s much more unbridled here than in other cities.”

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Meanwhile, the growth of longboards–larger boards often used by commuters in lieu of bicycles–has also fueled sales.

Still, the number of active skateboarders is declining across the country, and even in New York, local stores can no longer rely on foot traffic alone to hold on to market share. The number of active U.S. participants in the sport dipped to 6.2 million in 2012 from 8.4 million in 2007, according to a 2013 report by the Physical Activity Council, a coalition of trade associations. Meanwhile, it is hard for small players to undercut giant retailers in the sector, such as Warehouse Skateboards and 360-Skate.

Customer pics

“Customers need a reason to come and buy a skateboard at the shop, rather than just getting it cheap online,” said Jeff Harbaugh, an action-sports consultant and market analyst in Seattle who has followed the action-sports industry and youth-culture market since 1991. “A small skate shop competing on price is out of business.”

Using social media helps Jeff Gaites attract plenty of business, despite competitive pressures. He co-owns Uncle Funkys Boards in the West Village with his wife, Kristen Howard. Mr. Gaites snaps photos of every customer who buys a skateboard and posts them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“We have about 4,500 ‘likes’ on Facebook, and those are people who actually like us, who have been here, bought a board here and know us,” said Mr. Gaites, whose shop is profitable and has raised $75,000 in capital from friends. “These people are really connected to the store, and that’s a very authentic way to grow.”

Labor Skateshop’s Mr. Rewolinski relies on Instagram and Tumblr to drive sales at the profitable store. For instance, he showcases new inventory on Instagram, where the shop has about 8,000 followers, and answers questions about price and availability. “It’s as simple as posting a new shoe we just got in,” he said. “Sometimes, five minutes later, I’ll have someone in here asking for it.”

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