In retailing, location is everything. So it’s hard to understand why the first Nixon Custom Shop in Southern California is nearly impossible to find. But the more you know about the action sports lifestyle brand Nixon, the more the 1-month-old hidden shop in Encinitas makes sense.
Founded in Encinitas in 1998 by friends Andy Laats and Chad DiNenna, Nixon sells custom-made watches, wallets, backpacks and sportswear, catering mostly to athletes in the surfing, snowboarding and skating industries.
The company’s higher-end products are sold in more than 90 countries, primarily in retail stores, including Nordstrom, Barney’s, Tilly’s, Bloomingdale’s and Zumiez.
Three years ago, the company opened its first Custom Shops in London and Paris, where customers could hand-pick the materials for their watches and have them assembled by a technician while they watched.
Since then, several more Custom Shops have opened but the nearest one to the company’s barn-like headquarters at 701 S. Coast Highway was in Berkeley. That changed in November.
For the past few years, a room in the back corner of the building was used as a demonstration area that retailers could visit to see how Nixon products should be displayed. It was also a space where DiNenna and Laats met privately with VIP clients.
When Nixon’s new CEO, Scott Kerslake, came on board in August, he came up with the idea to convert that little-used back room into the company’s seventh Custom Shop.
The new store has no sign and it’s hidden behind the back of the building on a narrow sidewalk near the railroad tracks. Co-founder DiNenna said there are two reasons for this.
First, the space was already adapted as a showroom, so opening it to the public required little effort or expense. The second reason is the hipness factor. Athletes in the action sports industry are a cliquish group and they like the idea of shopping in a store that only the “in crowd” knows about.
“They’ll like being the ones who know how to get inside,” said DiNenna, 46.
DiNenna and Laats, 49, came into the retail industry from different areas of the action sports world. DiNenna, an avid surfer and snowboarder, was the advertising director for the action-sports-oriented TransWorld Media. Laats had left his job as product manager for Burton Snowboards in Vermont to get his MBA at Stanford University.
When DiNenna came up with the idea for an action sports watch company, he reached out to Laats for his product design and business expertise. In 1997, Laats moved to North County from Palo Alto and together they raised $1 million from 24 angel investors. The following summer they launched Nixon in a small office on South Coast Highway.
They chose the company name after doing research with target customers in the 18-35 age range. It had a strong, masculine, authoritative sound and was familiar to the ear, even though its association with disgraced President Richard Nixon wasn’t positive. Nixon watches became bad boy products for a bad boy/rebellious clientele.
Over the years, the company’s watches have been developed in close collaboration with action sports stars like skaters Tony Hawk and Curren Caples, surfers Rob Machado and John John Florence and snowboarder Nicholas Mueller.
This adds celebrity cachet as well as unique product design elements that only athletes would know and appreciate, like a watch case that’s water-resistant at 100 meters, a watchband that locks fully in place to avoid flapping loose and a watch mechanism that tells the time with the tap of a mittened hand. There’s also a new smartwatch with custom apps that track athletic activity and report the latest surf and snow conditions.
The watches, which start around $100 and go up to $2,500, aren’t just for athletes. In recent years, the company has expanded its line to include a Star Wars-branded series and a watch series for charity with wristbands made from rock stars’ old leather jackets and guitar straps, including Keith Richards, Ringo Starr and Steven Tyler. Other Nixon items include wallets, bags and apparel.
Kerslake said in a statement that his company is excited to invite local residents into the discreet shop after so many years as part of the Encinitas community.
“This has been our home since the beginning and our goal is to utilize our base camp to provide a place where people can connect, learn more about the product and experience the brand,” he said.
The Nixon Custom Shop
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.
Where: Northeast corner of Nixon Brand Headquarters, 701 S. Coast Highway, Encinitas.
Phone: (760) 697-9283