Swim City sells island lifestyle at gateway to Siesta Key

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Judy and Nick Johnson create branding that captures the feeling of the Key

By ChrisAnn Allen

Swim City owner Judy Johnson was raised on Siesta Key beaches. Her great grandparents lived on Beach Road.

“I have such wonderful memories growing up here and I want to bring that joy to everyone that comes to our beaches,” Johnson said.

From that mindset and a background in broadcasting, Johnson and her late husband, TJ, purchased and grew Swim Mart, which later developed into Swim City. Now, the business includes five locations, stretching from St. Pete Beach to Englewood.

Locally recognizable by the large swimwear and surf shop at the corner of Stickney Point Road at the gateway to the Key, the company started in 1989 when Judy and TJ decided to depart from their careers in radio/television advertising sales and purchased Swim Mart, then located on Bay Road in Sarasota. Judy said TJ sold airtime to the former owner, who suggested they buy his business.

“Since we loved the water and I enjoyed fashion and I was in radio, music broadcasting, I thought it paired very well,” Johnson said.

So, the previous owner introduced them to the different manufacturers, which included trips to New York, as well as Miami Swim Week — the biggest swimwear trade show in the world.

“Just really enjoying fashion and swimwear, it was so fun to meet the vendors and reps to build those relationships to be fashion-forward and the first in the industry to carry certain brands,” she said.

Their newly purchased business coincided with the start of the outlet mall boom, so they were able to operate as a retailer in those malls and, according to Johnson, became a “category killer,” meaning the other stores didn’t carry swimwear because they couldn’t compete with what Swim Mart was offering.

“We were very fortunate at that time because that was really the beginning of that type of retail,” she said. They had eight outlet stores before becoming Swim City.

Initially, Swim City was a competitor, but the founding owners were retiring in 2008 and Johnson had a chance to purchase. She said there had been some pushback as certain brands were concerned with being associated with the name “Mart,” so this transition allowed them to elevate their branding.

Additionally, Johnson’s background in radio and sales helped her provide the music and create the “vibe” to set the perfect ambiance for their stores.

“We create a beachy, tropical vibe because we want everyone to have a great time and get to know us in the stores,” she said.

Subsequently, they have a solid following that has been shopping at their stores for years. “Even multigenerational, ” Johnson said.

And the legacy Johnson and her late husband created has carried on to their family’s next generation. Judy’s son, Nick Johnson, who grew up helping in the warehouse by removing plastic and preparing merchandise to be placed in stores when he was about 8 years old, is now the vice president of the company. After TJ passed in 2003, Nick and his brother Tommy, two years his senior, went with their mom to shows, where skateboarding, skimboarding and surfing brand reps would “pick their brains” about what the kids were into.

“He had an instrumental part in the expansion of our business,” Johnson said of Nick. “Some of these brands were hesitant because we were carrying missy and women’s swimwear, so it helped these companies to feel comfortable with us. And he had a good eye for color and trends.”

Said Nick Johnson, “In high school I worked in the stores for a bit, which helped me see what customers were looking for.”

He then went Pepperdine University in southern California, where he studied business with a computer science minor, but was also in the epicenter of the swimwear and surf world. Following school, he worked for a tech startup for several years.

“Meanwhile, my mom was trying to reel me back in,” he said. “So, I returned home and joined the family business, primarily doing the men’s buying but ventured out into athleisure and brought in some of our newer brands, including Vuori, Free Fly, Fair Harbor and 7Diamonds and we’ve seen some great success with that.”

Now, the stores carry more than 70 premiere brands, both at their physical locations and online at swimcity.com.

With Nick’s return in 2018, they grew their web-based business. Judy said, with her advertising background they place importance on marketing; both online and print. However, word of mouth from years of satisfied customers has been important to their success and subsequent growth, she added.

“Especially at the Stickney Point location, a reputation has been built that the people that live here know us and bring their friends when they visit,” Johnson said. “We want customers to feel like this is the one place where you can get everything you need for your time at the beach. And if you live here, we feel like we’re your one-stop shop for lifestyle in this area.”

ChrisAnn Allen
Author: ChrisAnn Allen

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