A conversation with Ron Jon Surf Shop President Debbie Harvey
by Eric Wright, January 2013
For 50 years Ron Jon Surf Shop has been one of the most iconic brands in Florida and is practically synonymous with surfing, fun and beach vacations. So well-known is the name, CBS approached Ron Jon’s president, Debbie Harvey, about doing their show, “Undercover Boss.” However, Harvey responded, “It would be pointless; everyone in the company knows who I am.” Steering the success of the brand we’re all familiar with, Harvey’s focus, passion and friendliness permeate the franchise.
SCB: You once described yourself as a “retailer” and you certainly have the resume to prove it. How has the retail market changed in the last 5 years and how has Ron Jon changed or adapted?
DH: It hasn’t affected us to the degree that we have changed our approach. Granted the state of the economy has an impact, but we aren’t a traditional retailer. Most of our outlets are in high traffic tourist locations, not in what would be typical retail locations. We see ourselves as more of a brand or specialty retailer, which appeals to tourists or is aspirational in focus.
SCB: What do you mean by aspirational?
DH: People come to us because we are a different shopping experience. We are a brand and when people visit us it makes them feel good, as though they are sharing in a culture or lifestyle. It isn’t a replacement business; it is fun, unique and you will see people smiling as they shop at our stores. We often see second or third generation shoppers; people who came as teenagers are bringing their kids back for the Ron Jon experience. In addition to tourists, our customers may be people who surf, want to learn or their kids are interested in learning to surf – it runs the gamut. This is why we include a significant amount of hard goods at all our locations – surfboards, skateboards and skimboards – we are committed to that.
SCB: There is not, in my opinion, another company that has done a better job of branding, for its size, than Ron Jon. If you were teaching a seminar or a group of MBA students on branding, what would you tell them?
DH: You have to decide who your customer is and then you have to devote the resources to develop the brand. You have to decide how much money you are going to devote and be consistent in promotion. You can’t be everything to everyone, at least not at the beginning.
SCB: Break commitment and consistency down.
DH: In Ron Jon’s case, you will always see our logo prominent in all our advertising. We emphasize a specific lifestyle, not a particular product we are trying to promote. Our intercept advertising (i.e. billboards) is images you will see repeated on the outside of our stores. This consistency of the message, the lifestyle or brand, is our emphasis, not to sell this particular style of board shorts, which we may or may not continue to carry. We are family, beach and fun oriented, that is our consistency.
Also when we hit tough economic times after 9-11 and after the market crisis, we made cuts in other things in order to maintain our commitment to marketing. We are not reactionary when it comes to marketing; in fact we probably devote a greater percentage to marketing in tough economic times than we do in more prosperous times.
SCB: Does this unique experience and market niche cause you to be somewhat exempt from the ups and downs a typical retailer deals with?
DH: The economy affects it all, but we are more affected by the tourist market and people’s ability to travel than other economic pressures.
SCB: Since you are located in tourist destinations, do you know what percent of your customers are international?
DH: It is certainly a growing segment, but it isn’t nearly as large as domestic tourism. In places like Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, where we have stores, there is a sharp increase in Brazilian tourists. We do collect zip code information so we can track customer trends. We also have a lot of customers we don’t classify as tourists, but as “visitors” on business or staying with family that are often seen in our stores.
SCB: Do you study other retailers, say Bass Pro Shops?
DH: We study a lot of different stores, but remember no two Ron Jon’s are alike. Our store in Clearwater is only 3,000 square feet,while our store in Cocoa Beach is quite large. We won’t ever have a template floor plan, not that there is anything wrong with that, it just isn’t our design. We try to find the best tourist locations, find where our customers are and then look for the optimal setting.
SCB: Your background is with some of the major retailers – Bealls, Home Shopping Network. Culturally, what was the big difference or the biggest transition for you?
DH: In large retailers, you are highly specialized and focused on particular aspects of the overall business, what I call “silos.” With a smaller company, I am able to be involved in all aspects of the operation. Also, everyone is focused on the same vision, goals and purpose. Our merchandise buyers have to work with store operations because the stores are all unique. A display that might work in one store won’t necessarily work in another. Also, our decision making is quicker and more integrated with other players on the team. In addition, because our brand is so well known, strategizing how to build the brand versus finding the next sale item for the book, I find challenging and enjoyable. In some ways we are more in competition with other tourist destinations like the beach, Disney or Kennedy Space Center than another retailer.
SCB: You’re a tourist attraction?
DH: No not really. We are something visitors want to see. We’ve been here 50 years and you would be amazed how a visit to one of our stores will cause someone to get involved in surfing or skateboarding and then there is a lifestyle change that we are connected with. We’re more of an iconic destination that people are excited to revisit or bring family and friends and re-experience.
SCB: You once said, “There is an entertainment aspect of coming to Ron Jon.” How did you develop that or continue to cultivate it?
DH: That was (founder) Ron DiMenna’s vision of making Ron Jon a Disneyesque version of “Everything for the Beach” – so that people’s beach experience was made complete or associated with a visit to Ron Jon. Of course a major part of that is providing a great customer service experience. We train our people that it doesn’t matter if someone buys anything; the important thing is that they have an enjoyable, memorable experience. Or if they are buying a $500 surfboard or one T-shirt, they are treated the same. That way we know they’ll be back.
SCB: I remember there was a period where you were selling watercraft like wave runners and scuba gear, but you pulled back from that. What goes into those decisions?
DH: You have to decide what your focus and specialty is. We understand that it isn’t “water sports” per se, but the beach experience. I want a large assortment of what we carry, rather than an edited assortment of many different items. It is better to have a large assortment of surfboards, rather than a few surfboards and some kayaks, etc. That is what works well for us, a great assortment of surfboards, bodyboards, skimboards and skateboards. You have to choose the merchandise that targets your customer and will fit into your retail space.
SCB: What are the other keys to Ron Jon’s success?
DH: There are two things that built us: great marketing or brand image and customer service. We even combined the two – from the beginning Ron Jon’s founder included a decal or sticker with every purchase. We have a strategy that provides great attention to the customer without being threatening or pressuring a sale; we want coming to Ron Jon to be fun. Every guest will be provided a great experience and I have no problem with people wandering through our store and not buying a thing. Next time they come back will be with friends and they’ll make a purchase.
SCB: Have you ever considered changing your logo?
DH: Not since I’ve been here. No, I don’t think we’ll ever change it. We do vary it on some products like T-shirts, but that logo is too much a part of our identity. I don’t think it will ever change.
A respected author and speaker, Eric Wright is the assignment editor for SpaceCoast Business magazine.