Arcade Belts isn’t the newest brand on the block. But over the last few years, the Tahoe-based company has put themselves on the map with skyrocketing growth.
The brand opened more than 1,000 doors in North America over the past year alone, and has supported that with consistent growth in Australia, Japan, and a new partnership with Hectic to launch Arcade Europe.
One of three friends who co-founded the brand, Tristan Queen, says this type of growth is just the beginning for Arcade.
So, why belts? Was it a strategic move by the Northern California natives to push into a category that had little to no brand traction at action and adventure shops? While the trio of young entrepreneurs — which includes professional skier Cody Townsend — had leverage in the world of action sports, that was far from their reasoning behind entering the market, explains Queen.
“It was never about looking through an idea list to find an un-tapped category,” he says. “We genuinely felt that the belt designs we were finding at retail were low quality and outdated.”
Related: Tom Asta joins Arcade Belts
In 2010, Queen, Townsend, and David Bronkie decided they would change that, and started brainstorming ideas for a lighter, more versatile, better performing belt. They’d discovered that all their go-to hobbies— snowboarding, skiing, skating, hitting the beach – were significantly less enjoyable when wearing a leather belt, cheap boy scout belt, or a shoelace.
Tapping into what they knew, the crew used fishing wader belts as the original template for a new construction with performance-centered materials. That same year, Arcade Belts was born.
Today, the products are recognized by those who travel (the belts are fashioned so you don’t have to take them off through airport security and can actually wash them right along with your pants) and those who live active lifestyles in general.
Retail growth has been a contributing factor in raising awareness, Queen says: “The fact that retailers have been able to find belt dollars where they didn't exist before was the other part of the perfect storm. Buying, merchandising and selling belts has been a bit of a black hole for retailers for a long time. It's nice to help simplify their lives while telling a new story in the industry.”
On that note, we recently caught up with Queen to hear more.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Arcade has seen growth in the past few years. Can you describe what the strategy behind that growth has looked like?
One of the strengths of our company lies in the diversity of our distribution. We've built our lives around boardsports, but also love traveling, trying random different sports in the off-season, camping and wandering, and things like that.
Arcade belts live happily in stores that cater to this lifestyle, whether the retailer focuses on outdoor, snow, surf, skate or fashion. We learn a lot from playing in different markets that helps us improve our offerings for all markets. For example, the things we've learned in the fly fishing industry have helped shape our product offering for snow, etc.
You’ve seen particular success with core retail shops, especially those within the ActionWatch report, which shows more than 150% YOY revenue growth from 2015 to 2016. What has been your secret to success when working with those brick and mortar shops?
Initially we partnered solely with core specialty because they give very honest product feedback and they understand what a brand needs to do to be successful in their store. This all happens at a level that encourages trying new and different things because the consequences for the brand aren't catastrophic if you get it wrong.
We worked on our formula with some of the best core shops in the US and Canada and stuck by the belief that Arcade hasn't made a sale until a customer buys it off the shelf from our retailer. This helped us develop a program where the product and the merchandising program do the hard work for us and we simply work with retailers on the paperwork. They still continue to provide great feedback and we continue to focus on making product that allows them to capture revenue in an untraditional category.
How do you balance brick and mortar with online retail? Does product segmentation play a role in that strategy?
Online is tricky for everyone. The changes happen so quickly and many of the things brands do to capture online business are directly at odds with what helps their wholesale retailers.
Our philosophy is that one of us doesn't have to fail in order for the other to succeed online. An example is not doing deep website discounts because you want to hit an internal sales goal that forces the retailer to drop pricing on your product in order stay competitive. That seems very shortsighted to us. We do segment our product a bit, which allows everyone to capture a unique customer.
Is this type of growth sustainable? What will future growth/expansion look like for Arcade?
We really feel like we are just getting started. As long as people keep wearing pants, then we believe a healthy level of growth is sustainable. The rates of growth might change, but we are built for that kind of fluctuation.
We are lucky to be in the position we are in. We don't want to make questionable decisions simply to chase a certain growth rate.
We are our own customers. That gives us tools and insights that will allow for us to continue finding new business opportunities. We have excellent partnerships developing in Canada, Japan and the EU as well, which gives us plenty to work on.
Currently, Arcade has a single focus on belts. Do you see the brand branching out into other categories in the near future?
We want to be the king of belts and a bit of a category killer for our retail partners. Instead of buying a couple low quality options from page 43 of some other brand’s catalog, they can capture both belt customers and impulse/gift shoppers by simply investing in Arcade. We will always return the favor if they do.
We do have several concepts on deck to expand upon this idea, but they are all built on the same formula of improving a product that is already in the market and building something better than the current options.
What’s the story behind how you ended up naming the brand Arcade?
Arcade came about because my father owned video games, pool tables, and jukeboxes as his business. He kept our family going 25 cents at a time and it was partly a nod to that, but also because I grew up in arcades and that was where all the fun stuff happened.
It wasn't about playing video games, it was more of a meeting spot and a place where we plotted the next adventure. We met at the arcade and then went out looking for fun, trouble or both. The true story is that the three founders knew our friends would love the product and that they are the ones we wanted to make it for. The name wasn't really meant to go beyond them and us.
Can you speak to the overall innovation process and why, if it’s the case, you are making a bigger push into the outdoor market?
Our Adventure Belts can be machine washed right in your jeans because they have no metal and they are made of similar materials to pants and socks. We build from this platform with additional features because of all the random things people get themselves into.
Some wear the belts into the ocean with hybrid shorts because the shorts don't quite fit properly, so we constructed them to be water friendly with quick dry materials similar to a boardshort. Adding a daisy chain onto a belt allowed people to keep their knife or keys strapped onto them more securely than with a belt loop.
Most of the fun stuff we do happens outdoors, which is why the outdoor, action, snow and even skate industries are melting together a bit. It's also why rad brands like HippyTree, Roark, Poler and even Yeti can play across multiple channels.
At Arcade, we want our products to excel in whatever weird situation people get themselves into regardless of the market. Surfers play golf. We all fish and surf when the snow melts. All our core skate buddies love to go camping if and when they can. It's a good thing. We aren't as isolated by sport anymore and the consumer gets more creative options at retail.
What piece of advice would you give those looking to start a new brand today, that you wish you had when you started out?
Be disciplined, ask a lot of questions, and have a deep understanding of why you are starting your business because you will need to rely on that reason during the gnarly times.
I personally wish I had been better prepared for competition so that I wouldn't have taken it so personally. If you have a unique idea and it works, others will come running to try to make it theirs.
Several brands that I looked up to my entire life have made Arcade knock-offs, which doesn't do any good for anyone, but that's nothing new to this or any industry and it's not going to change.
Why would Dakine want to make an Arcade belt? Make a Dakine belt, I bet it would be sweet. I guess the answer is that if you have a true understanding of why you are starting your business, it will be your guide along the way no matter what challenges pop up.
Any final words or additions?
I owe a ton of gratitude to everyone involved in Arcade. We are only as good as the people working on the brand and luckily we have an army of solid individuals bringing us into the future.
Also, we were very fortunate to go through the SDSI program in San Diego during our early days. It was like a mini version of Shark Tank with real world business owners and it forced us to be able to answer difficult questions about our brand and our business model while also figuring out how to filter advice with our own personal convictions. The entire crew at SDSI are doing great things for this industry and I think they definitely deserve some recognition.