How Digital Main Street helped Kincardine’s SurfSup get locals out on the water
For more than 50 years, surfers have quietly searched the coves and coastlines of the Great Lakes looking for surfable waves.
It’s a niche love, especially given that waves are often best in the fall and winter when temperatures plummet and the lakes wake up, but the barrier to entry is less the cold and more the lack of access to the right gear for surfing.
After Tarah Coates traded the Atlantic coast of Halifax for Lake Huron and got over the shock of paddling into freshwater waves, she saw an opportunity to support both the current and next generation of local surfers by opening SurfSup Eco Shop in Kincardine in 2017. The shop has surf rentals – a rarity on the lakes – and also offers lessons alongside all the gear for surfing, paddleboarding and skateboarding. She also has a second location in Goderich.
“The heart of the business is to give access to these waves to locals,” says Coates. “I love when people come in and they get stoked and I get to provide them with all this gear so they can now surf in the mornings before work.”
The surf community isn’t small, but it’s definitely still niche which is why education is a major goal for Coates. She doesn’t just want to give access to the water, she wants to make sure the people in the water understand riptides and overall surf safety. However, juggling lessons, sales and rentals would be impossible without the digital infrastructure to keep everything running smoothly.
“When I opened the business, I was fully aware that the trend is towards online,” she says. “Even if it doesn't mean buying things, people pre-shop online, especially the new generation and they also expect things very fast, like 24-hour access for booking rentals or their vacations.”
Online sales come from all over the place (SurfSup Eco Shop is offering free shipping anywhere in Canada during the pandemic) and finicky waves mean lessons are often announced on short notice. But her digital infrastructure was lacking. “I didn't have the ability for people to book rentals online or classes and my online store wasn't syncing with my shop… so that was a pain,” laments Coates.
Last year, while opening SurfSup’s Goderich location with her business partner, Coates heard about the $2,500 Digital Transformation Grant from Digital Main Street, a program that combines grants and one-to-one support from the Province of Ontario and the Ontario BIA Association to help main street businesses strengthen their online capabilities.
“(As) a small business in a rural area you can't really pay people to (build your digital presence) because you just don't have that kind of expendable income… so I was doing it myself,” she says. “The grant really educated me and helped me find better ways to do things.”
With help from the grant, the surf shop owner was able to bring booking for rentals and classes online. She was also able to sync the store with its digital counterpart and invest in some high-quality photos from a local lens to illustrate the beauty that is lake surfing on social media and her online store. And through all that, she’s been able to open up the phenomenon of freshwater waves to interested locals while supplying surfers from afar.
“There's a lot of kids interested and their parents don't really understand because they didn't surf but now they're taking advantage of this thing that's literally in their backyard,” she says. “I love giving locals that.”
Written by Andrew Seale