More and more people have been getting into (or back into) inline skating since the start COVID-19. Numerous magazines and new media have produced segments and published articles about inline skating’s latest boom. The industry however was not prepared for this large influx of people looking to buy skates, resulting in many stores selling out completely, and leaving potential customers frustrated. Then, during the middle of the pandemic, with people scrambling to find a place to buy skates, Arnav “Sonic” Shah opened Kinetic Expression Skate Shop in the Queens borough of New York City. I sat down to discuss with Sonic to discuss the shop, what decisions he faced, skating in NYC, and what his plans are for the future.
How is it that a metro area of over 20 million people has gone so long with no skate shop?
The decline of boutique shops is an unfortunate trend that has plagued many big cities, especially as commercial rents have gone up. It’s been even tougher with skating as sales are more seasonal and the sport itself had been in decline until the past few years. And according to the manager of Blades, the last proper holdout for inline skates in NYC until their closing in 2016, it’s expensive to physically stock skates because they take up a lot of space due to all the different models and sizes.
That said, a few shops do move some skate products:
Paragon Sports – a humongous sporting goods store with pitifully diminishing options and no knowledgeable staff.
Panda Sports – specializes more so in skiing/snowboarding and golf, but they carry a modest selection of Rollerblade brand products.
Five Stride Skate Shop – a true boutique shop, but for roller skates only.
How long have you been planning to open a shop?
About four years ago, I threw around the idea of a pop-up shop – like a one or two-month thing to sell a lot of skates during the most popular time of the year. But this idea was more for someone else to carry out with my involvement being secondary, but no one seemed eager to jump on to the ton of work it would have taken to follow through.
But two years ago, in 2018, when Sebastien Leffargue and Greg Pinto, founders of FR Skates and SEBA, visited NYC, they expressed an interest in having someone in the community sell their goods and asked if I’d like to be involved. At the time I was in the process of buying a rowhouse in western Queens which had a beautiful basement/garage space that could have served as at least a warehouse, so it seemed like a possibility. But ultimately I decided against it for the foreseeable future because I was traveling so frequently (to attend every skating event I could) and there’d be no way I could dedicate the time or presence to properly manage such an undertaking, especially during peak season.
Was the timing of the shop opening and COVID-19 and coincidence? Or did you start the shop knowing there was a demand?
There is zero coincidence here. Somewhere in our periodic emails around April, Sebastien brought up the idea of my selling things once again. Given that I expected to do little travel for who knows how long due to the pandemic, the fact that skating had already been growing in popularity the past few years with an explosion during the pandemic, and that this surge in interest would likely continue for a few good whiles, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to jump into. The folks at FR helped get me stocked up real quick.
Where is the shop located?
In western Queens, in the above mentioned beautiful basement/garage space which is now in part a beautiful skate shop. So it occupies part of the building I own and reside in. Consequently, the shop address isn’t listed publicly as I don’t need random people showing up to my home unsolicited.
How can someone visit the store?
Visits are by appointment only, as it’s just me running the thing, and they can be booked through the website’s automated system which I’ve set up. I generally release available dates/hours a week or so ahead of time.
How are people finding out about your shop?
Simply put, the skating community really looks after itself. Many customers find the shop through a skater maintained site (http://www.skatecity.com/nyc/shops.html), which is well ranked on Google. Most others are finding the shop through Reddit, often from members of our community. And of course, we have plenty of skaters coming through our community pages on Facebook and events like Wednesday Night Skate and Thursday Night Skate. So there’s been surprisingly good demand given that I’ve done no advertising.
What brands do you currently carry? Will you be bringing in any more brands? Or speed / aggressive skates?
I currently carry the FR Skates family of products (which includes SEBA and Luminous Wheels), MPC/Junk Wheels, and Triple 8 helmets/pads. In order to keep things sustainable, I’m taking it slow and easy, so I’d assess each brand on a case by case basis factoring in demand, upfront costs, profit margins, and relationships with the brands. Regarding that last point, the owners of FR and MPC/Junk have each gone above and beyond to support my skating for years and I consider their products to be the best out there.
So I’ve got the rec, urban, and slalom skating disciplines down (along with a bit of speed when it comes to wheels). As far as other disciplines, at this point, the shop is so new and I haven’t looked much further yet. It really depends on whether it can be kept manageable and with little complexity. For example, with aggressive skating: if there’s a minimal set of products that can adequately serve the community (e.g. one boot brand, one or two frame brands, and one or two-wheel brands), then it’d be a sound and sustainable addition.
Do you have an online storefront to do online sales? If not do you plan to?
I originally considered adding online sales down the line, but at this point, I’ve decided against it more or less for the foreseeable future. First off, the online game to sell skates is a difficult one as products are expensive to ship (upwards of $30 per pair of skates) and doubly so as returns are common because sizing up skates is fraught with error. And more importantly, the in-person experience of buying skates is a critical one. I often spend an hour or more with any given customer fitting them with different skates to keep their feet happy, setting them up with the exact configuration for their skating desires (wheel and frame size, brake), and going over the features and proper use of their new investment. I’ve received so much positive feedback from customers about this being an amazing experience, so I’d rather spend more time with them and less time with UPS. The one exception I may consider is shipping products other than skates (like wheels), as it risks far less headache.
Are you having problems getting stock during the COVID-19?
Yes, it’s been tough. The distributor I work with, SG Sports, supplies more or less every physical and online store in North America for the FR family of products, and they had very little stock, to begin with. And when I started the process, they managed to sell 10 of the initial 30 pairs I was looking to stock in the few days it took me to get back to them. Regarding restocks and pre-orders, I basically got last dibs after all the other shops laid claim to the most popular items. So it’s been tough for everyone to keep up with demand, and it goes up the entire supply chain, especially as shipments ultimately come from China and there are plenty of pandemic related delays on that front too.
What are your future goals and plans for the shop? Any plans for a post-pandemic storefront?
I think if there’s anything we’ve learned in 2020, it’s that we can’t plan very far ahead. And also that adaptability is the biggest asset one can have. So given that I’m barely three months into this endeavor and the uncertainty regarding everything else in the world, I don’t have any such plans. But that said, I’m keeping a close watch on possibilities and where things are heading, as always. Skating has already been in a strong revival for three years so maybe it’ll truly blow up and create obvious possibilities. And maybe boutique shops will start to return as commercial rents get decimated thanks to the pandemic. Time will tell, and until then, just one step at a time.
You are heavily involved in the NYC scene, how many of the customers have come out of the woodwork that you’ve never seen before?
Most of my customers are actually new skaters, or to put it in their words, “getting back into it”, often after many years. So it’s been great to help create such a positive first impression for them. I’ve had a handful of familiar faces buy products too.
Where are your customers coming from?
Pretty much all over the NYC metro area: Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, and even visitors from out of town.
I also want to point out that my customer base is highly diverse and it’s pretty representative of the NYC demographic. So a lot of people of color (especially Black and Asian people) and a pretty even split of men and women, if not more women.
I love that I’m serving the local community and make sure to emphasize who’s on skates through the shop Instagram.
What’s behind the name of your shop?
“Kinetic Expression LLC” is the name of the company I formed nearly four years ago, after leaving my salaried position at Google, to encompass all my work involving kinesthetic arts, like skating, as well as my personal and freelance software engineering work (some of which involves movement arts). I like the idea of energy and movement – hence kinetic – and also see them as more a form of expression than anything else (and the word “expression” also describes a line of computer code). So it seemed apt to simply use that same name for the shop.
Fun fact: Despite the company name not really being out there until recently, the 2019 and 2020 event t-shirts for Skater Migration (Miami) have the Kinetic Expression logo on the back alongside other event supporters.
Has the store done as expected or exceeded your expectations?
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I did know demand was high and I’m impressed that a lot of people are finding the shop. The beginning was tough because I had so little inventory but it’s been much better now that I have skates to sell across most sizes. A few things have blown me away. First, that customers are super grateful to have access to a physical shop and many even said that they want to support a local business. And second, that the community has really stepped up to help this project succeed, from promoting the shop through all sorts of channels (without even my asking) to buying from me, even if they might be able to score a better deal online.
You are SkateIA certified, are you combining your shop and skate instruction together? As to where the shop offers lessons?
Absolutely! So the lack of travel due to the pandemic has not only allowed me time and presence to launch a shop but also do more lessons. I’ve been offering private lessons for the past few months and plan to open up group lessons soon given that New York has its pandemic shit together. I’ve also thrown a bunch of my video tutorials (produced by InMove Skates) onto my shop website and direct newer skaters there to help them get going. Newer skaters face a steep learning curve so it’s important to ensure that they have a good initial experience. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they tried skating long ago and immediately gave it up because they had some sketch incidents. I look at the ski industry and see how they did a great job to attract and keep new participants by putting resources into lessons, so we’d do well to consider the same for skating.
How many inline skaters do you think live in NYC?
A lot more than you’d think, and even more by the time I’m through 😉
What are the best things about being a skater in NYC?
NYC might just be the most skater friendly place in the country. You can skate not only our ever-growing set of trails and bike lanes, but do so legally (we have the same rights as cyclists, and we’re also permitted on sidewalks). And it’s surprisingly safe to skate most streets as drivers don’t go fast (thank you NYC traffic) and remain fairly alert due to the typical chaos in the streets which includes not only cars, but also cyclists, push scooters, pedicabs, horses, and who knows what else.
Is Kinetic Expression working together with the New York night skates and events or have plans to?
There’s a strong confluence of interest between the shop and NYC skating events, and especially so since I’m highly involved with both. I always tell customers about relevant opportunities to expand their skating, be it lessons or skating events. Conversely, the night skates spread the word about the shop, and if someone specially requests a product, I’ll gladly hand-deliver it to them at an event I’m attending, like Wednesday Night Skate or Empire Speed Team practice. I’m sure more opportunities will present themselves as the shop and local events continue to flourish, and I’m open to less obvious ones.
How important is a skate shop to a city’s scene?
Some people argue that a skate shop is absolutely essential to foster a city’s scene. I am NOT one of those people. Our local skate scene has been strong without any shops (or without any involvement from shops when we had them). What does matter is that the scene has a central resource that can help uplift skaters (whether new or experienced) with knowledge and opportunities to grow (through events and classes). So in NYC, our multiple – and somewhat interconnected – communities have done a great job at this. And in other places, a shop might be taking on this role.
That said, we can’t discount the fact that being able to physically and easily get people onto skates does help markedly. And if done right, having the shop and the community operate in concert can work wonders. Barcelona is a great example with the ROEX Shop which does lessons in a plaza right in front of its shop, which also serves at the meet-up spot for their humongous Friday Night Skate. It’d be cool to see this in NYC but it’ll take more than just me. As one person, I’m already running a shop, been on staff for Wednesday Night Skate and Empire Skate Club for a decade, teaching skaters, certifying new instructors, and developing programs through SkateIA; and that’s outside of enjoying my own skating (including urban, slalom, speed/ultradistance, and even a bit of aggressive), prioritizing time with family and friends, and performing my day job as a software engineer. So I could use plenty of help 🙂
- To see what Kinetic Expression has in stock or to book an appointment visit keskate.com.
- Follow Kinetic Expression on Facebook and Instagram.
- Follow Arnav “Sonic” Shah on Instagram.
- Contact Big Wheel Blading for and questions, suggestions or ideas.
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