Don’t Throttle Back Now

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On one hand, dealers can’t stop that good feeling. On the other, there may be some frustration. While consumer demand for boats appears to be holding strong despite inventory issues, there’s a series of other storms building that will likely come ashore soon, so it’s time to assess and plan a course of action.

The waves are the return of stiff competition that the boating industry successfully navigated around during Covid. Now the rising Consumer Confidence Index (from 90.4 to 109.7 in March) is signaling that people are more optimistic as vaccination counts rise, government stimulus checks arrive, businesses fully reopen, and airlines add flights for increased passengers.

Let’s not overlook that cruise line operators will restart sailing by July without test cruises if the line attests that 98 percent of crewmembers and 95 percent of passengers are fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, millions of other people stuck at home last year are predicted to hit the road for a much-anticipated return to summer family visits and vacations. And as rules for masks and social distancing are gradually relaxed, many consumer activities are heading to prepandemic levels, and the economic recovery is accelerating.

But are prepandemic levels good for the boat business? At this point, it’s a wild card. Sales during the pandemic were very good, as boating newbies consumed dealer inventories. And sales were good leading up to the pandemic, albeit showing signs of slowing going into 2020. So it’s not rocket science to assume dealers would prefer sales to stay at pandemic levels. But that’s out for two reasons.

First, all those millions of people who will be jumping back into all forms of summer travel are, or were, the prime targets for our boat sales. Some observers contend this competition to boating will return stiffer than ever, at least in the near term. Indeed, it’s possible many of these new customers will decide boating served a purpose last summer and that it’s time to move on.

Second, the ongoing supply-chain problems will increasingly aggravate dealers. Case in point: Clemons Boats in Sandusky, Ohio — a dealer for Boston Whaler, NauticStar, Albemarle, SeaPro, Bass Cat, Yar- Craft and Bennington — just completed exhibiting in the Catawba Island Boat Show, which closed Sunday. His observations are telling.

“Last April, we had over 50 boats in stock and available, which we thought was light at that time,” Clemons said. “This year, we have four total boats in inventory and on display at the show. Most incoming units have been sold to ensure our customers get their boats for the season. This is the lowest stock inventory for April we have had in our 55 years in business. And looking ahead, I believe inventory control at the dealership level will be most important, as we move from the Covid-spurred sales levels back to more normal retail.”

So what’s a dealer to do? It’s never been more important to nurture relationships with existing customers. This is particularly true for the newbies that a dealer sold to during the pandemic. We know up to 40 percent of new boaters usually drop out inside of five years. But it could be faster this season for many of those pandemic newbies heading back to other summer activities. Still, dealership action could stem that tide.

Frank Peterson, president of the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, offers some excellent advice. “Today’s challenge is to cater to a diverse audience and a wide variety of needs based on our customer’s experience level,” he says. “And in a world where people have more information than ever at their fingertips — and may even be experiencing information overload — they want a more thoughtful and personalized experience.

“They are looking for brands to focus on their needs and provide value after the purchase,” Peterson continues. “For example, it’s not just about catching a big fish or being on the boat, but also enjoying the experience.”

Peterson holds that dealers need to welcome all participants and, especially, showcase them in their marketing efforts, such as the website and social media. Further, product training needs to emphasize customer benefits, not features, and demonstrate how the product will make them more successful and have a better experience.

In addition, every dealer can continually provide customers with a variety of resources about where and how to boat and fish for family fun. Moreover, dealers don’t have to go out and shoot video and hold interviews (although that’s a great idea). RBFF has a variety of programs and resources to support dealer-customer engagement. And they’re free.

• Embed RBFF’s Places to Fish and Boat plugin on your website to provide customers with places to fish and boat nearby.

• Share great fishing and boating how-to videos on your sites and social media channels.

• Download free, customizable marketing materials from the Get on Board retention toolkit to capitalize on RBFF’s national campaign to keep new boaters engaged in the sport and to grow fishing and boating.

“Excellent customer engagement goes beyond the sale,” Peterson says. “It is a relationship that needs to be purposefully nurtured, especially in the current business climate.”

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