Josh Gizdavich, who started Cleanline Surf in 1980, remembers his first online sale in the mid-1990s after starting a website — a pair of sunglasses to a customer from Norway.
“I remember my friend asking me, ‘Are you sure this is legal?’" he said.
Cleanline now makes half its sales online, becoming one of the largest national retailers of wetsuits.
A Seaside native, Gizdavich grew up surfing in the always-cold waters of the North Pacific Ocean. Getting gear was possible, he said, but took a lot of phone calls and waiting. He started selling surfboards out of his house and, once he'd moved 10 or 12, decided it was time to start a shop with his friend, Jack Molan, who'd been selling wetsuits out of his house.
The two opened Cleanline Surf 39 years ago in the former doctor's offices of Gizdavich's father, one of the region’s last town physicians. Molan later left the company to work full time as a fisherman.
Gizdavich recalls starting his shop with only six wetsuits in varying sizes. Customers could try them on, but had to wait for weeks while he ordered theirs.
It took at least five years before Gizdavich, a former chef, felt confident he could make it financially by solely running Cleanline. He slowly built up his inventory, turning offices into storerooms, and kept steadily growing, opening a second shop in Cannon Beach in 1994. In 1999, he started selling wetsuits online.
“One of the things for us is that our water here is cold year-round,” said Dave Koller, Cleanline’s general manager. “In East Coast shops and Southern California shops, they have cold water seasonally. With our water being cold year-round, we’ve always had the inventory.”
By 2010, Cleanline was moving between five and 10 wetsuits a day online. Gizdavich moved out of his father’s offices and into his current location at the former Seaside Public Library on U.S. Highway 101 across from Broadway Middle School. The sale of his dad’s offices went toward acquiring a nearby warehouse Gizdavich has filled from floor to ceiling with several thousand wetsuits.
About a quarter of the upward of 40 people Gizdavich employs handle online orders from the warehouse. In a bank of offices upstairs, workers answer phone calls and chat messages, troubleshooting and communicating with customers about their purchases.
“We’re literally like an online shop that people would physically walk into,” said Dallas Pattie, a shipper for Cleanline. “They’re stoked when we remember what they ordered last time, and then we ask them how it’s going.”
Heading up the e-commerce business in the warehouse is Matt Gabriel, who worked at the surf shop during summers in high school and college. Gabriel has since taken Cleanline’s website through two rebuilds to help the surf shop become a more competitive global retailer.
Cleanline used to put anything hot on its website for sale, Gabriel said, but is now at the point of winnowing its online store and focusing on the surfing gear its staff, almost all of whom are at least periodic surfers, knows so well.
“We’ve thought about going on Amazon, but I don’t think we ever will, just because that’s not our style,” he said.
Hanging in the corner of Cleanline’s Seaside showroom dedicated to wetsuits is one of Gizdavich’s first, a heavy, stiff and uncomfortable onesie more reminiscent of an immersion suit. Gizdavich remembers skipping classes to go surfing, returning to class bleeding through his T-shirt from the rashes in the tough early wetsuits.
“It’s just amazing how far suits have come and the technology,” he said. “That thing would just rub on your skin like cement. I still have permanent scars on my armpits.”
Improvements in gear have helped expand surfing from warm waters to a worldwide sport Cleanline helps supply. Gizdavich also ascribes to the “Blue Crush” theory about how the 2002 movie about female surfers accelerated the sport’s expansion.
“When ‘Blue Crush’ was over and all these women started surfing, they had boyfriends, so the boyfriend had to start surfing,” he said. “And then six months later, they broke up, and you’ve got new boyfriends and new girlfriends who had to start surfing. And then a year later, they broke up. And then a year later, they broke up.”
Cleanline Surf now completes 35 to 40 orders on a given day, and up to 700 on Black Friday, mostly online. Rarely does the shop not ship out an order made before 9 a.m. the same day.
In a tradition Gizdavich has held on to from his early days, every order is topped with Starburst, stickers and a handwritten postcard thanking the customer for choosing Cleanline. The company’s sterling, mostly five-star reviews online tell the story of a customer base that, beyond the lack of sales tax, appreciates the personal touch.
“My box came with my wetsuit, stickers, a handwritten note, candy and wax made for my city's waters,” said a customer from San Francisco on Yelp in her five-star review. “This was just so considerate that I would never imagine shopping anywhere else again.”
Aside from the improvements in online commerce, the local knowledge and the personal touches, Gabriel has a simpler explanation for why the Seaside surf shop has been so successful in a highly competitive online marketplace.
“Surfers want to buy from surfers, and they want to support a surf shop,” Gabriel said. “All the guys that answer the phone are surfers that know the product, and they’re stoked on it.”