Marc Blackburn didn’t necessarily have ambitions of becoming a retail store owner. A boater at heart, Blackburn became friendly with Ocean Surfari owner Kurt Richardson while working for the business as a fishing charter captain beginning in 2014. By 2016, Richardson was ready to sell the business.
“Kurt kept bugging me to buy the business and I kept telling him no,” said Blackburn. “Finally, at Thanksgiving in 2016, he put his arm around me and said I had to buy the business. I said ‘Fine, but I’m not taking the retail store. I just want the fishing boats.’ I ended up taking the retail store too.”
Blackburn turned to friend Bob Kohuth, who was living in central Florida at the time, where the two had managed Winn-Dixie supermarkets together in the 1980s and 90s, for help with running his new business. The two leaned on their supermarket experience to shift the retail side of Ocean Surfari from a higher-end store with big name brands to an approach that favored volume over bigger margins.
“I bought the same quality as the high-end brands at a much-reduced price and marketed Ocean Surfari as the brand, passing the savings on to the consumer,” said Blackburn. “That was successful so we started running buy-one get-one free on our SPF 50 shirts and that really took off. Now, 90 percent of our store is Ocean Surfari branded items that are buy one get one free.” With the exception of some items like sunscreen, jewelry,
Sunday Afternoons hats, and Fitkicks water shoes, most of the business’s inventory bears the now easily recognizable Ocean Surfari logo and boasts consumer-friendly prices. The model proved so successful; Ocean Surfari opened their first St. John location yesterday, right at Cruz Bay’s Loredon Boynes Sr. ferry dock in the old Pig & Rooster location. They’ve also added a 47-foot snorkel and sunset cruise boat, Reef Surfari, to the two sport fishing boats that Blackburn said remain the foundation of Ocean Surfari. With Ocean Surfari’s new Love City location, day trippers will now be able to check in at the retail shop and get picked up right at the Cruz Bay beachfront.
“My wife Wendy and I have always loved St. John,” said Blackburn. “We’d been looking at locations over here pre-COVID but didn’t really find what we were looking for. The landlord who owns the building where our Red Hook store is located also owns the Cruz Bay building where we’ve opened our St. John location, so when the tenant here chose not to renew, we took a leap of faith. This is a great loca- tion and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
Blackburn estimates about one-third of Ocean Surfari’s retail customers are Virgin Islands residents, while the other two-thirds are visitors. The brand’s SPF 50 shirts, with short- and long-sleeve styles for men, women, and children, are top sellers. H20-activated mens swim trunks that reveal ocean-inspired designs when wet are also popular items, as are Ocean Surfari’s microfiber beach towels that sand brushes off of easily and that roll up to the size of a water bottle. Ladies’ mix and match swimsuits are $30 per piece and buy one get one free. Ocean Surfari’s SPF 30 face buffs were always popular among boat captains, and now that they double as COVID-friendly face coverings, they’re gaining even more popularity. Other face mask styles are also available at the St. John shop.
“The prices at our St. John location are identical to St. Thomas — there’s no St. John markup,” said Blackburn. “We’re going to use our new boat, Reef Surfari, to deliver product when it pulls up on the beach to pick up passengers. Obviously rent is higher here than St. Thomas, but we hope the volume will make up for it. We’re just excited to be here, and we want everyone to come visit.” Through the end of October, Ocean Surfari’s retail shops are offering a loyalty program where every dollar spent equals one adventure point. Once you’ve accumulated 100 points, you earn $5 off your next purchase; 200 points equates to $10 off. Those who surpass 1,000 points begin earning double points. Join the loyalty program for 20 percent off your first purchase through Oct. 31.