An executive reached out for help in growing his dealer network, and like so many others before him, he had a specific list of the qualities he sought in the dealers he wanted to attract. The conversation was typical of those we often have with manufacturers and suppliers from around the marine industry.
He said he wanted larger, well-known and established dealers — preferably dealers who rank among the top in their respective region. He was seeking dealers with
financial strength who were well-capitalized, carry sufficient floor plan and, ideally, offer multiple locations. He needed dealers who fit nicely with his brand makeup and who knew how to effectively market and advertise his product. He hoped to find dealers who could sell a specific number of boats each year, who complete their own service work, and who are trustworthy and great to work with.
Now, if you’re a dealer and you possess all of these qualities, you should know that you are in extremely high demand — this caller isn’t the only one who seeks your partnership. But if you’re a supplier and you’re thinking, Wouldn’t that be nice, the difficult truth is that these types of dealership qualifications are extremely difficult to come by.
That’s not because our industry lacks quality dealers; there are plenty of great boat dealers. We’ll get to that in a moment. Right now, let’s look at some of the metrics and determine how common these characteristics are.
First, according to our database here at the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, which is updated on a weekly if not a daily basis, there are almost 3,650 verified boat dealerships in the United States. This list was compiled by purchasing government data, merging it with known manufacturer lists, de-duping it with the MRAA’s expansive database and then verifying every last listing.
Next, if you’re looking for a multiple-location dealership chain, there are only 343 boat dealer entities that offer more than one location, and they represent a grand total of 1,480, or 40 percent, of all individual locations. If you remove the top four retail entities from that equation, you have fewer than 1,000 total locations that are part of a multilocation dealer chain, which means that only about 25 percent of all the remaining boat dealer locations share a sister location.
So while it’s possible to find businesses that offer multilocation retail outlets, they represent a small number of our industry’s dealerships.
Further, keep in mind that the top multilocation dealers in their regions can claim that honor for a reason: They already sell well-established boat brands. These larger, well-known dealers, which presumably also boast financial strength, typically have all the boat lines they need. That’s how they became strong regional leaders, making it even more challenging to break into their product lineup. It’s certainly not impossible to do so, but the go-to-market offerings a manufacturer must make to capture their attention and business is a significant barrier to entry.
The truth, however, is that bigger doesn’t always mean better. The industry’s best dealers come in all sizes, shapes and packages, each with individual strengths and opportunities for development. Many of the most innovative, industry-leading dealers, offering the most outstanding customer experiences, are one-location businesses.
The impressive qualifications that manufacturers seek underscore the significant role that dealers play in today’s marketplace, though. Without a strong dealer network, brands simply struggle to gain the traction they need to accomplish their goals. Smart suppliers also know that strong dealers can carry a boat brand to market leadership; conversely, poor dealers can drive customers away from a boat brand forever.
In today’s pandemic-fueled marketplace, most manufacturers aren’t focused on growing the number of dealers in their network. They’re struggling just to meet the demand — both quality and quantity — of their current networks. Tomorrow, though, as they seek to further or even just maintain the growth they’ve seen in 2020 and 2021, a stronger dealer network will be imperative to their success.
All of which brings me to the one strategy that will ensure enduring success: building the great dealer network of tomorrow from within. The best manufacturers are putting their No. 1 priority on developing the dealer network they already have because it’s those dealers and those dealers’ current customers who will determine the sustainability of our industry growth. A dealer’s ability to deliver a world-class sales and ownership experience, one that drives referrals and repeat business, will be the difference between the losers and the winners in 2021 and beyond.
This is not a new idea, of course. It used to be that manufacturers employed dealer-development personnel at a director or vice-president level. Today, that’s not as common. And while today’s suppliers typically train their dealers on the features, benefits and competitive dynamics of how to sell their own products, they really leave the rest of their dealers’ success to chance. They rarely, if ever, invest in programs and educational opportunities that help their dealers develop best-practice-level systems, processes and techniques for selling and servicing product, for nurturing and retaining customers, or for operating their dealership.
The opportunity here for a forward-thinking manufacturer is to create or engage with formal programs and education that will systematically help their dealers strengthen their business. Supporting the development of their dealers helps the dealers, helps the manufacturer, helps the customers they share, and helps everyone else in the supply chain, while improving our industry’s competitive advantage over other recreational pursuits.
Manufacturers and suppliers: As you begin to think about recruiting more dealers for your network, remember that your best opportunities are found in the dealers you already work with. Focus on those relationships, strengthen those foundations, and you will outperform the competition. Then, and only then, you’ll find that the best dealers will come looking for you.
Matt Gruhn is president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.