The secret of Sam’s success

'Honesty is probably the biggest idea we've ever had,' says Sam Baio, president and CEO of West 49.

‘Honesty is probably the biggest idea we’ve ever had,’ says Sam Baio, president and CEO of West 49.

It seems a somewhat simplistic business philosophy, but in nine years West 49 has grown into Canada’s largest skateboard and snowboard chain, with an expected 60 stores in shopping malls across the country by year’s end.

Baio is equally forthright when explaining why he’s been so successful reaching – and keeping – the company’s 12-to-17 consumer base. ‘[It's because] we haven’t tried to,’ he says. ‘We’ve tried to play with them. All these other people who are trying to figure it out, they’re just all bullshit. All they care about is taking money from these kids. We’re not about the money. We’re about the culture.’

And the latest idea is sure to please.

Two 6,000-sq.-ft. test stores, about triple the size of their average locations, will open by November in Toronto’s suburban Vaughn Mills Shopping Centre and Mississauga, Ont.’s Heartland Shopping Centre. In addition to more space to accommodate the chain’s growing line of merchandise, they will house 12-ft.-high encapsulated Nintendo video gaming stations, six- to eight-ft.-high mini-ramps for boarding demonstrations and a stage area for community and high school bands to perform.

Two smaller locations, pushing the same hybrid, will open shortly in Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall and Ottawa’s Bay Shore Shopping Centre. ‘We’re just trying to test the boundaries of retail and entertainment,’ says Baio. ‘We don’t live in an Internet world with these kids, we live in a touch-and-feel world.’

Baio, 52, (‘going on 18,’ he’s quick to add) is a frank, transplanted American from Buffalo, NY. He moved to St. Catharines, Ont. in 1974 and has been skating since the ’60s.

Before starting West 49, he was a partner at Boathouse Row in the ’80s, a company that sold ski and sport apparel.

During that time he noticed certain trends: a decline in team sports and more interest in individual sports; snowboarders leaving the slopes to head to the back country; skaters taking to the streets instead of skate parks; and the clincher: more kids hanging out in malls.

He says that the shops for skaters back in the day were ‘back-alley shops’ and ‘not parent-friendly.’ And with the sport becoming younger and more mainstream, an idea was born.

An idea that’s grown and succeeded by listening to and enlisting youth rather than relying on industry experts. About 40% of the 30 staff at the Burlington, Ont. headquarters are under 30 – and in key areas (marketing, buying) 90% are under 30. One of the junior buyers is 21. Store managers are on average 22.

Of about 600 store staff, 75% are band members. Store managers are allotted on average $2,000 annually to sponsor local concerts, school fundraisers and other events which ‘turns every store manager into a mini-marketing manager,’ says Cindy Mielke, West 49′s director of marketing, adding that this approach also helps the surrounding community ‘to connect with that store.’

Mielke herself was hired, says Baio, because of her ‘pure talent, passion and enthusiasm.’ After more than 13 years in the sport, event and retail sphere working at Burton, a resort in Whistler and in event co-ordination, she met Baio at a job fair a little over three years ago and he knew she would be a good fit. ‘She’s totally immersed in the culture,’ he says.

Beyond the merchandise, West 49 is also front and centre in the skating community. Sixty per cent of its marketing budget is devoted to creating and sponsoring international and local events that support boarders such as the West 49 Canadian Open – World Cup of Skateboarding.

In the end, every store, every event is simply an opportunity to get feedback and ideas from the kids, says Baio, who also credits partnerships with the right entertainment firms as key to maintaining credibility. That’s included an ongoing partnership with Nintendo and a deal with record labels, like Universal, which hooked up with West 49 for a tie-in with band Blink 182 last Christmas. In a co-marketing promotion, ads on YTV and Much Music promoted a contest to fly the winner to see the popular punk-rock band perform anywhere in North America. Incidentally, the band’s line of clothing, Atticus, is sold exclusively at West 49.

Even the retailer’s ad campaigns say authentic. Baio says they’re edgy, not conventional; corny even, but not slick. A new ad by Blink Productions for the back-to-school push has two boys hanging around a skate park. Suddenly a huge crane dumps hundreds of jeans on their heads. The tag: Killer Sale. Killer Jeans.

So what is it that other youth marketers are missing? ‘They’re going to have to put in the sweat equity because that’s the only way that you achieve any authenticity whatsoever,’ he says. ‘It’s not about trying to figure youth out. It’s about being with them, you know? And that’s the harder part, to just hang with them and not dissect them.’

‘The whole thing is about being real,’ he adds. ‘So many people try to be in our retail business when maybe they’d be better off in a different age group or selling car washes.’