For the surfing industry, the recession has become a matter of sink or swim.
Across Southern California, small surf shops as well as action sports giants such as Quiksilver Inc. are trying to stay afloat as the economic crisis that started on Wall Street makes its way to the beach. With surfers cutting back on new surfboards, wetsuits and board shorts just months before summer, executives and workers at surf goods stores said they were holding their breath.
"We're not used to moving backward," said Aaron Pai, owner of Huntington Surf & Sport, a chain of four surf shops in Huntington Beach. "To be truthfully honest, there's one word on my mind right now: uncertainty."
Bob McKnight, chief executive of Quiksilver in Huntington Beach, said the industry had been especially hard hit because its core customers tended to live in areas most affected by the mortgage meltdown, including California and Florida.
"We've been through a couple downturns like this, so we know what to expect," McKnight said. "But this one is certainly worse than anything we've seen."
Industry experts said surf retailers were also vulnerable because of the hordes of casual enthusiasts who have taken up the sport in recent years, boosting sales and turning surf apparel into mainstream fashion. According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn., the industry grew from $6.5 billion in 2004 to $7.5 billion in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available.
As the downturn worsens, some worry that these new customers could dramatically scale back their spending, leaving younger, less experienced surf companies in particular at risk.
"The industry had been on a really solid growth curve for the past 10 years, so this is really the first time that it's taken a step back," said Andy Tompkins, group show director of Action Sports Retailer, which runs one of the industry's largest trade shows. "It's more than just that core surfer that they're speaking to. They gained more customers, so they have more to lose too."
It's not just the occasional surfers who are making retailers anxious. Even the most ardent surfers are trying to save, said Tanya Turner, a store manager at Jack's Surfboards in Dana Point.
"People who are die-hard surfers, who are really into the sport -- no matter what the economy is like, they want to get out there and surf," she said. "But they're still looking for some kind of sale."
Longtime surfer Mike Dumitras, 30, said he used to buy a new wetsuit every year, spending $150 to $200. But after his overtime hours at a cellphone company got cut, he paid a friend $20 for a Hurley wetsuit with a rip in the fabric, which he sewed together and sealed with duct tape.
"When you have less money, you get cheaper things," Dumitras, of Huntington Beach, said. "In the past, you work a little overtime, you get a new wetsuit. Now that's gone."
The surf industry's struggles were clear at the Action Sports Retailer January trade show in San Diego, where attendance was down 15% compared with the previous year, said Tompkins, who estimated 13,000 people attended.
Several brands, including Quiksilver and fellow industry heavyweight Hurley, pulled out of the event, leaving the show with 100 fewer brands represented than in 2008. Of the 400 brands that did attend, many scaled back their booth displays, Tompkins said.
"From a retail point of view, we do expect a shakeout in this market," he said. "We're in a situation right now where a lot of businesses are challenged to the point where they might not be able to continue."
There have been signs of weakness lately among some of the industry's biggest players, many of them local companies.
Last month, rumors swirled that Quiksilver, which is saddled with a significant amount of debt, might sell itself or part of the company to sportswear giant Nike Inc., which has owned action sports brand Hurley since 2002.
It was a prospect that didn't sit well with many Orange County surfers and one that McKnight shot down last week.
"People pose different ideas, but right now, no, it's not part of our plan," he said. "We have three great brands, we think we're positioned down where it needs to be for 2009 and 2010, we're much more global than any other surf company. I think that we will weather the storm nicely."
Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., which sells mainly surf and skate apparel and accessories, reported this month that same-store sales in January fell 11% from the same period last year. The Anaheim company said last month that it would eliminate positions and reduce planned inventory levels at least 20% throughout the year.
And sporting goods retailer Sport Chalet Inc., which sells some surfing gear, reported this month that same-store sales in its fiscal third quarter decreased 15.4% compared with a year earlier. The La Canada Flintridge chain also said it was trying to improve its operations.
"We are leaving no stone unturned to reduce costs," said Craig Levra, chief executive of Sport Chalet.