The Gomez family and thoughts about affordability

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Carlos C. Gomez lives in Miami with his wife and four children, Mary, Kathrine, CJ and Jon. We met last weekend at the Discover Boating Center at the Progressive Miami International Boat Show after they decided to get into boating.

“When I saw the Discover Boating sign,” Gomez said, “I came over because I figured you are behind the website, right? I want to tell you I did all my research on your website and it really helped us decide we want a boat.”

Voila, I thought. There’s proof that DiscoverBoating.com is getting the job done. But that’s when Mr. Gomez added what I didn’t want to hear: “But we’ve been all over this show and the prices are ridiculous,” he said. “Where are the cheaper boats?”

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Now, we did have a short list to give the Gomez family of “affordable” boats in the show — specific boat models that could be purchased for a payment of $250 per month or less (Glastron, Carolina Skiff, Stingray among others).

But the truth is there really wasn’t a lot to show them. That interaction, however, documented several points worth noting.

His comment reminded me that, as an industry these days, we might be succeeding in “selling” the boating lifestyle to some newcomers, but we aren’t doing a good job of having product that first-timers will see as affordable.

First, it’s widely acknowledged in our industry that to grow boating we must reach a greater percentage of minorities, especially the rapidly growing Hispanic population. The Gomez family is a great example — they have means, albeit within limits; they are relatively young with four young children, typical of Latino families; and among the highest priorities for Hispanics are family-centered activities. Isn’t that boating’s strong suit?

Second, if our industry goal is to at least get back to the number of boats we were producing before the recession — yes, we’re growing again with still a long way to go — we must have an answer for Gomez and his family because he was really saying “I’m having trouble balancing the benefits of getting a boat with the cost.”

Truth is, I’m actually repeating what Brunswick chairman Dustan E. McCoy has previously identified as a major hindrance to industry growth and it’s worth remembering. He said: “If we look at real market pricing, the cost of new boats is rising dramatically faster than the rate of inflation.” He has urged the industry to rethink how boats and various components are made.

The auto industry is a good example. New cars continue to include numerous features and refinements not found on older vehicles. But the manufacturers have managed a more consistent level of retail prices while still protecting operating margins.

“In boating, we’re beginning to price ourselves out of business,” McCoy warned. “It’s difficult for a lot of people in our industry to wrap their heads around that, because we’ve all become very good at adding features and letting the costs fall where they may. But we now need to become better at engineering and building boats so they provide better value.”

The industry’s suppliers must play a key role for this to take place. Manufacturers and, ultimately, dealers don’t want to tie up their money in big inventories anymore. It means everyone in the supply chain needs to be able to meet needs faster. Suppliers to the marine industry need to be as quick and flexible just as suppliers in the automotive industry have become. In the end, we need more quality entry-level boats.

Meeting Gomez made it clear we are succeeding when it comes to making the boating lifestyle look attractive through marketing vehicles like Discover Boating. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got the sale. To get new blood to actually buy into the lifestyle, we must find ways to build boats and engines that are affordable for young families. And, while I get it that builders like the larger better-margin boats — and their importance should not be understated — space in our shows needs to be allocated to those products that young families can view as a good cost-benefit proposition.

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