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Tuesday, December 27, 2005 | When the leading manufacturer of blank surfboards shut down earlier this month because of increased scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency, frantic customers scrambled to buy boards like parents searching for a Tickle Me Elmo doll the night before Christmas.
The recent swell has tapered off in the past two weeks, primarily because of price hikes imposed by foam companies, shapers and surf shops alike. The surfboard industry is now preparing for the long-term ripple effects of Clark Foam’s closure, as shapers can no longer obtain the blank boards they use to craft custom designs.
Clark Foam sold approximately 90 percent of blank boards in the United States, maintaining a near monopoly on the market for about 40 years.
Clark’s exit from the market left surfboard shapers throughout San Diego scrambling to buy blank boards from South America, Australia, China and South Africa at twice the normal cost. In turn, many of San Diego’s leading surf shop owners said they are paying an additional $100 for their boards, and passing the added cost to their customers. The hike translates to an increase of about 16 percent to 22 percent on the average surfboard.
Before the shutdown, an average board shaped from Clark’s material cost between $450 and $600.
At this point, no one is certain what the long-term effects will be of Clark Foam exiting the blank-board industry. Some smaller shapers have taken the announcement as an opportunity to hike prices, while others are trying to gain a competitive advantage by locating and purchasing low-cost blanks, and keeping the consumer’s costs down.
Justin Marlett, the owner of AKA surfboards, bought a surplus of blank boards from South America the day Clark closed its factory. The blanks, which will last Marlett through the beginning of the New Year, cost him $29 at the time. They now cost upwards of $55.
Marlett said he is not raising prices on his boards, but is using the state of the market to entice new customers who would otherwise be deterred by price hikes.
He speculated that in four or five months San Diego will experience an over-saturation of foam, caused by the frenzy to buy up boards at twice their normal cost. This, he said, will leave many shapers stuck with high-priced blanks, and the added cost will be passed on to consumers throughout next year.
Other shapers decided to change the materials they use in the wake of Clark’s abrupt departure.
In the past, many shapers have been reluctant to move from using the polyurethane boards that Clark Foam creates, to polystyrene blanks.
Making a board from polyurethane is cheaper than using polystyrene, because of the high price of the epoxy used to coat the polystyrene boards. Polyurethane is also less rigid and many shapers are more comfortable using the material.
But, for the time being, many shapers will be forced to make the transition.
Adrian Nichols, owner of Phase One surfboards said he will reluctantly move a lot of his business to the polystyrene market.
Although Nichols’ business was booming for the first two weeks following Clark’s shutdown, he is now struggling to provide service to all his regular customers, including his team-riders.
Nichols said many of his shapers do not like using polystyrene, and do not like using foam from other countries – they are particular to Clark Foam.
Most of the top surf shops agree that the key to surviving this sticker shock is preparedness and planning.
Jon Crie, a salesman at Liquid Foundation in Mission Beach, said his store did not raise its prices, because its shapers were able to buy low-cost blanks early on in the game.
“Most of them got on it with the quickness because they are top-end shapers,” Crie said. “They know what’s up, so the got all their blanks and got ready.”
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