Ryan Hitzel on Roark’s Retail Strategy via SES by Tiffany Montgomery

Ryan Hitzel on Roark’s Retail Strategy via SES by Tiffany Montgomery

Roark is jumping into retail with both feet, and has opened two good-looking stores in high profile California locations, with more on the way.

Roark’s first store debuted in Berkeley late last year, the second store just opened on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles and a store in Del Mar opens in the second week of October. Early next year, a newly signed San Francisco location should be ready to open.

And, it sounds like Denver could be next.

We spoke with Roark Co-Founder and CEO Ryan Hitzel to find out more about the retail strategy.

Why is Roark opening new stores in Los Angeles, Del Mar and San Francisco?

Roark CEO Ryan Hitzel: It would probably help to pull the bow back a little more to understand where we’re going.

We’ve always envisioned Roark as an omni-channel brand, mostly because of the depth of storytelling and the appeal to action sports, outdoor and menswear markets. So the brick-and-mortar flagships play a large role in each community and connect the dots between our wholesale, consumer catalog and e-commerce businesses.

The strategy is pretty simple when it comes to target markets. We have two buckets. We’re looking to provide a brand touch point in communities that are over-performing yet undersaturated with wholesale accounts. Our stores in Berkeley and San Francisco are examples of an over-performing market that does not have many Roark wholesale accounts.

The second bucket is regions that are still developing but have great potential and strong DTC demand. San Diego and LA are still developing for Roark and could use a brand buoy to support wholesale partners and educate our consumers.

I’m super excited about our second “Expedition Union” on La Brea in LA. I know the street well and it has really evolved over the past two years by pairing premium outdoor brands with well-established street and fashion brands.

Roark’s store is between Fjallraven, Best Made, Arc’teryx, Aether and Stone Island and is across the street from American Rag, Undefeated and Stussy.

We offer a different take on apparel and storytelling from those brands, as well as sharper price points. It will definitely allow us to speak directly to our customer, serve the community and provide a high profile global stage for Roark.

Del Mar is going to be a cool store too, a bit closer to the epicenter of the brand and part of the One Paseo project. (One Paseo is a mixed-use development that includes restaurants, shops, and residential and office spaces).

Saint Archer’s founder, Josh Landan, has the first taproom for his new Brewery called Harland, and there’s a new concept eatery by Michael Mina and Ayesha Curry named International Smoke, among other strong local and regional restaurants.

As far as retail goes, there’s a curated mix of stores from local favorite Van De Vort and also Lululemon, Fjallraven and Faherty. Again, we have the opportunity to offer something different that’s relevant to the community.

What have you learned from the Roark Berkeley store? How are those learnings influencing the new stores? (Size, design, assortment, staffing, etc.)

Ryan Hitzel: We’ve learned that retail is hard! That door opens up every day – rain or shine. But we’ve also felt the positive effects of a direct relationship with our customer.

Roark performs really well in the Bay area, as it does in most colder weather regions, so it’s been interesting to develop the brand on a street level in Berkeley. We’ve noticed that just like in our online business, price is not a barrier to purchasing anything in the collection – from $80 flannels and denim, to $280 waxed canvas jackets.

We sell the foundational styles like bottoms as well as our more technical products that need education from our team. The mix is different than we see with our wholesale partners. We aren’t curated into a store-wide merchandising mix and customers don’t price shop – it’s a pure purchasing experience. The store has allowed us to incubate new products and develop our customer so that they can shop anywhere for Roark in a more educated way.

Obviously quality staffing is essential. We’ve learned pretty quickly that a cultural connection to the brand is a core need, and that isn’t always easy to find. A great staff isn’t always easy to retain because it’s such a transient gig, but we’re learning in Berkeley’s first year.

There’s general traffic assumptions in regional retail, but every street has its own cadence and rhythm. Without any prior-year data, it’s been tough to staff appropriately. But we’ve been able to be much more efficient in the past four months than we were in the first four months. The Proof Lab crew in Mill Valley has helped us a ton. They actually consulted with us during the build and have helped us understand data and best practices for retail operations over the past few months. Their support has been incredible!

We’re bringing as much knowledge as we can to our Los Angeles and San Diego stores. Although there will be similarities, I expect them to be different because of the consumer and the weather and our position in the retail mix.

I’m really jazzed about the Del Mar store at One Paseo. San Diego has a ton of upside for Roark, and I think it needs our story to be told in a comprehensive way. I was nervous when I called Dave Nash (the Sun Diego owner), but he was beyond supportive and pumped for us to help develop the Roark customer that shops at his stores. It was a rad phone call – super motivating.

It’s sunnier in San Diego, and we’ve traditionally been more of a winter brand, but we’ve become more balanced in the last two years. It will be a great stage for us to learn more about the needs of our summer business.

As far as size of store, we have a few models, but we need at least 800 square feet to tell our story effectively. Berkeley and LA are a little bigger, but they have defined gallery/event spaces that are awesome.

Although there are some elements of the P&L that need to line up, we feel that the corner position in a building with character will perform better than a sliver lost in the middle of a cookie-cutter building. We’re really seeking unique real estate, which is tough to find and very competitive right now. But patience has worked for us, even though Los Angeles and San Diego are opening within weeks of each other!

Retail is intense – how has the addition of stores impacted the Roark staff? Have you brought on new talent to help manage it?

Ryan Hitzel: Intense is an understatement, but our crew has stepped up. It’s pretty wild how much pride everyone is taking in the stores internally. It’s really a reflection of everything they’ve been doing for the brand bottled up into a physical space. It’s pretty rad to see. A few times I’ve pleaded for the crew to take their foot off the gas for a second, but they’ve shut me down because they’re enjoying the outcomes so much. As a leader, you can’t ask for anything more.

Roark has a well-developed DTC team in place and they play a role in our retail expansion, but we recognized the need for a brick-and-mortar-centric individual. After a long search, we just hired a gentleman named Rich Burnham as our Retail Ops Manager. He ran five Nixon stores in Australia and did the same for Oakley down there. He’s delivered much-needed structure and a keen eye towards premium merchandising, brand integrity and profitability.

Rich opens and closes the stores every day and is solely focused on Roark Expedition Union flagships. From there we’ll build the team further – there’s an insatiable need for merchandising, marketing support and art.

It also looks like Roark has opened stores on prime – and expensive – streets. Can you share the strategy behind the locations?

Ryan Hitzel: Location is everything. Premium rent isn’t a bad thing if there’s traffic built in and it all pencils out. Our first five stores will be in very different settings, from unique street corners to modern developments, near the beach and far away from it.

But we’re not focused on outposts, we want to bring new customers into the fold and service our existing fans in experiential ways.

We’re definitely focused on regions where demand outweighs supply, which is pretty liberating. Although many headlines have people believing that retail sucks, we feel like there’s an incredible opportunity for brands that are under-distributed and have an ability to tell a compelling story with depth. It’s a great time to be an apparel brand with a voice and integrity.

Any plans for stores outside of California? Any new leases signed?

Ryan Hitzel: Yes, we really like Denver. There’s a few interesting things happening out there and I love the spirit of Colorado. It really fits well with Roark. We’re also looking in the Northwest and in Austin, but you never know. I’m trying to keep us west of the Rockies for now, but you’d be amazed how strong the retail game is in places like Chicago, Nashville, North Carolina and Washington D.C.

As I said earlier, we just signed a lease in San Francisco, that store is going to be very special. I’m pretty sure Ryan Sirianni (Roark Co-Founder) is going to live and work out of it!

Lastly, we saw that you and some of the Roark team were in Europe over the summer. How is that business managed – Distributor? Direct? Are you finding the brand works well in certain regions and/or cities?

Ryan Hitzel: Drew Dolkas, our VP of Sales, and I went over there for the first time since Roark has been doing business in Europe.

We’ve been in stores for three years, so it was long overdue to get over there to rally the crew and see how we sit in the European market. Roark is distributed out of Biarritz by Pilotfish – they work with a handful of great brands like Electric and Banks.

It’s a pretty traditional model where reps, agencies and sub-distributors are managed from their offices. All marketing efforts start with our team, but flow through Biarritz. Our business is good and growing at a nice pace. As in all of our international efforts, we’re positioned as Adventure Lifestyle first and Action Sports second. Surf had definitely changed over there, it’s not as robust and connected as it once was. It definitely feels like there’s been a Eurocentric shift towards indigenous brands, but we’re happy with where we’re at.

Roark is still young in the EU, but has had great traction at Pukas in Spain and, surprisingly, in Portugal. Our Portuguese agency is delivering product on motorcycles and building wall sections by hand. They’re living it, and their authenticity has been rewarded.

It was super cool to see our brand accepted by consumers, it was a proud moment for me. But all in all, to be successful, we feel that Roark Europe will need to follow our strategy.

So there’s a solid chance we’ll have a Roark Expedition Union in Europe pretty soon. I may move over there for that one.

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