This month I am happy to be back with another great interview of a local up-and-coming Downtowner. Whitney Chaney is the daughter of Central Coast Surfboards’ owner Mike Chaney and after making a name for herself at the Sundance Film Festival she is back home and stepping into a leadership role in the family business. On a wet and dreary morning in February we sat down to talk about growing up in a family owned shop, her homecoming and the future of retail as seen from a millennial “tween”. Whitney can relate to millennials but doesn’t personally identify as one.
I asked Whitney about what it was like growing up in a surf shop and she shared an initial answer that is to be expected but then took it a bit deeper. When Whitney was a little grom she got to go into the shop and be a kid but “if we were behind the counter we were working.” Tagging merchandise, stocking shelves and other administrative jobs were common chores for her and her brother but beyond that she wasn’t really involved. She was mostly focused on academics and retail was not really a part of her horizon. Whitney had her sights on other paths for her future and after high school she moved to Santa Barbara and eventually graduated in a degree in film studies from UCSB.
“After graduating I felt obligated to do something in that world.” Looking at her career options she knew that she had opportunities in Los Angeles but didn’t want to work to live and immediately ruled out LA. Eventually she found a place in working at film festivals and landed what would turn into a four-year gig at Sundance Film Festival where her first two years were spent as volunteer coordinating more than 2,000 other volunteers and then another two years employed by the festival managing the volunteer program. While working in Utah she met her boyfriend who also happened to be from the Central Coast and after discussing their futures they decided that they wanted to be back home near there family. People often asked her where she was from and when she told them SLO they were always curious about why she ever left. So Whitney and her boyfriend came back to SLO.
While looking for a full time career here Whitney worked at Central Coast Surfboards helping her dad with administrative duties and soon realized that she enjoys the work. Particularly, she likes working with the young 20 year olds that are the next generation of the shop. “Being a part of the family business just fell into place.” Now she spends her time working with her employees to teach them about customer service and providing a special experience for their customers. As she sees it, the shop was started by 20 year olds 41 years ago and that youthful culture is still important to their brand. When I asked her how her dad felt about handing off responsibilities to her at the shop she let me know that her dad didn’t start the business thinking that he would be passing the business off to his kids but he is an incredibly proud man. Mike is proud of the shop and its achievements and proud of being a part of the community. So naturally he is proud to have her stepping into a leadership role; she jokes that it affords him more time to play golf. What parent wouldn’t be proud of their child stepping into a similar situation?
When I asked Whitney about whether there is a difference in their visions for the shop she acknowledges that her dad is a wealth of knowledge and with 40+ years of experience she looks to him for advice but when it comes to social media, that is something she is an expert on. The father daughter team is shaping up to be a formidable retail duo as they combine traditional customer service principles and contemporary marketing and community engagement. The shop still stresses the customer relationships they have always fostered but they are making a shift to leveraging their social media channels on Facebook and Instagram to engage with their customers. Their posts regularly feature the brands they carry and the events that they are hosting like beach clean ups and movies. Whitney claims that in the last six months a lot of changes are taking place in the shop, “when you come in things likely won’t be where they used to be.” Not only have things changed locations in the shop but the brands are getting some new additions.
The surf shop takes a lot of care in selecting products that they believe create value to the customer as opposed to products that are simply popular or happen to be great deals. Employees are expected to be experts on their community and experts on the products that they carry so when a customer comes in, they don’t have to use Google to look up the details of the product. Whitney explained to me that in an era where every retailer is competing with the Internet their greatest strength is providing knowledge about products with an memorable experience which is something that the internet just cannot achieve in the same way. That little tactical advantage is what she views as the future of brick and mortar retail. From our interview I would expect that Central Coast Surfboards will be in our Downtown for many years to come.