Gatineau skateboard apparel merchant on quite a roll

Rapidly expanding U.S., international customer base has young entrepreneur on verge of cracking million-dollar revenue mark, thanks to annual growth rate of 85%

Adrien Lavoie
Adrien Lavoie

At an age when many Canadian kids are slinging burgers at fast-food joints to earn spending money, Adrien Lavoie was busy educating himself on the finer points of online retailing.

That was more than a decade ago. Mr. Lavoie was working at a bicycle shop, and it didn’t take long for the owner to realize his teenaged helper was something of a computer whiz and put him in charge of figuring out whether a “virtual storefront” would make sense for his operation.

Despite their best efforts, the concept of web-based commerce didn’t really click with the store’s clientele.

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“We had like two or three sales per month when we had thousands of products,” says Mr. Lavoie, now 28.

Clearly, the Gatineau entrepreneur has upped his online retail game since then.

Wooki, the skateboard apparel and accessory store he launched in 2011, now sells shoes, hats, backpacks, sunglasses and other items to customers in nearly 50 countries. Though the store maintains its own website, 99 per cent of its online sales come via eBay and Amazon.

Those e-commerce giants charge fees ranging from about 10 to 15 per cent on each item sold on their platforms, but Mr. Lavoie considers that a small price to pay to piggyback off their mammoth global presence.

“People are just used to going on there,” he says. “Amazon has taken over the world – not just product-wise but shipping-wise. They have a huge reach. When people are shopping, they don’t really Google the product, they don’t really check certain websites. All they do is just go directly on Amazon, check for the price, they find whatever product they were searching for and they just buy on there.”

Specializing in hard-to-find kicks from marquee shoe brands such as Adidas and Reebok, Wooki has been growing at an average clip of 85 per cent a year. In 2016, Mr. Lavoie racked up sales of about $820,000, easily surpassing his projection of $750,000.

He expects to continue on that steep growth curve again this year. Mr. Lavoie predicts he’ll move at least $1.2 million worth of goods in 2017, almost all of it via the Internet. He still runs a brick-and-mortar store out of his Gatineau warehouse on St-Joseph Boulevard, but he stopped doing any real marketing for it a long time ago.

“It’s kind of a niche product,” Mr. Lavoie explains. “When you’re selling online, it’s a lot more stable. It’s always sunny somewhere, it’s always hot somewhere. It’s always cold (somewhere) when you’re trying to sell some winter coats.”

Expansion plans

Wooki offers free shipping in Canada and to the United States – which, not surprisingly, is the store’s biggest foreign market, accounting for about three-quarters of its overall revenues. Other countries, notably Australia, make up 10-12 per cent of its sales, a share that keeps growing every year thanks to ever more efficient and less expensive international shipping options.

 “When you’re selling online, it’s a lot more stable. It’s always sunny somewhere.”

Amazingly, Mr. Lavoie estimates only about three per cent of his clients are repeat customers. Even though online reviews of his store are overwhelmingly positive, “people just don’t come back. They’re searching for a different product or they find a better price elsewhere. It’s kind of a difficult market, but, at the same time, if you have a good price, people will buy it.”

With his 5,000-square-foot store and warehouse now bursting at the seams, the University of Ottawa graduate is seeking to expand his operations. He’s hoping to land funding from the Business Development Bank of Canada to either add space at his current site or buy a bigger facility somewhere nearby.

Mr. Lavoie’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed at eBay. The California-based platform’s Canadian arm has already honoured him with two major awards – naming him its Young-preneur of the Year in 2013 and its “micro-multinational” of the year in 2016.

In early May, eBay invited Mr. Lavoie to join seven other business owners from across Canada for a meeting with Minister of International Trade Francois-Philippe Champagne in Toronto. The main topic of the 90-minute get-together was a subject close to Mr. Lavoie’s heart: import duties and their impact on Canada’s online retailers.

While a struggling loonie works to Mr. Lavoie’s advantage when he ships goods abroad, he says Canada’s low customs threshold can be a major headache when foreign buyers return a purchase.

In an age when consumers expect to be able to send back any item free of charge, Mr. Lavoie can be slapped with import fees on any item valued at more than $20 that is returned across the border to his store. In the United States, by contrast, the threshold is $800.

Mr. Lavoie says Canada’s current duty-free limit, set 25 years ago at the dawn of the Internet era, is woefully outdated for the modern world of e-commerce.

“It makes things extremely difficult,” he says. “This is a big issue that affects my day-to-day operations.”

The minister appeared to take the business owners’ concerns seriously, he says, adding he hopes to have a chance to revisit the issue with Mr. Champagne in the future.

In an e-mail to OBJ, a Finance department official said the import threshold is “set at a level intended to reduce the administrative burden for customs officials without creating competitive inequity for Canadian retailers,” adding the government would have to weigh the concerns of various business groups before rethinking the $20 threshold.

Strict laws and high import fees in other countries have caused him problems, too, Mr. Lavoie says, forcing him to stop shipping to places such as Argentina and Brazil.

Still, he says he’s very happy with the direction his company is heading, adding the formula for success in today’s retail environment is really no different than it’s ever been.

“You really have to search your product, you need to be interested in your product itself and you really have to … give customers great service.”

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