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Value equation for objects of desire

So what are buyers looking for in a new boat today? Value? Innovation? Performance? All three and more, perhaps?
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So what are buyers looking for in a new boat today? Value? Innovation? Performance? All three and more, perhaps?

Coming out of the recession, builders played it safe by watching the bottom line. That was the right thing to do. But playing it safe in terms of sticking with an aging product line was not. New models are bold moves, and they are often needed to jump-start sales or maintain momentum.

So what matters today? New-boat buyers are attracted to technology and innovation, but they’re also weighing the value proposition: Does this boat provide good value for my dollar vs. something else — say an RV or a vacation home? Is it affordable and, maybe as important, will I have the time to use it?

New is driving boat sales, and innovation that brings value to the customer is always a no-brainer.

More and more, buyers, especially younger ones, are expecting their boats to function like cars — easy to operate, easy to maintain, dependable. Those of us who came of age when boats and engines were more “rudimentary” sometimes acquiesce, too easily I fear, to flaws in design, workmanship or installation that we wouldn’t accept in our automobiles and other high-end consumer products.

Millennials, who don’t carry the same baggage, may not be as forgiving. They’re coming to boating with higher expectations.

Time crunch

Leisure time in post-recession households where both parents work is a precious commodity. Face it, people in the market for a new boat today may have more money than time, a trend that shows no signs of abating. And that’s led to the growing market for the versatile dayboat.

I spoke with two builders recently about new boats. Peter Truslow is the president of Florida builder EdgeWater Power Boats, which produces a line of center consoles, dual consoles, bayboats and a cabin model from 15 to 36 feet. Bruce Perkins is the sales manager of Eastern Boats in New Hampshire, which builds four brands of Down East-style open and cabin boats from 18 to 35 feet.

“The changes in the boat market are a reflection of the big changes in our everyday life,” says Truslow. “Technology is driving much of that change. People are busier than ever, and they want to do more with their limited time. This is why open, multipurpose boats packed with features have become so popular.”

Price matters

New boats have to justify their premium price through superior quality and clear proof that the new features and technology bring tangible benefits that warrant the added cost.

There is, of course, a big difference between innovation and bells and whistles masquerading as something they’re not. Simply cramming more gewgaws into the boat under the guise of “new” is not innovation and only throws the value equation out of whack.

“Everybody’s looking at quality and price,” says Perkins, of Eastern Boats. “People are looking for good value for their dollar.”

Perkins rattles off the attractions of his line thusly: “Classic Down East looks. Fit and finish. Fuel efficiency. Soft ride. Low planing speed. You don’t need a ton of horsepower to run our boats.”

With boats, functionality and reliability are their own forms of luxury. Truslow understands that. “Even our smaller boats feature big-screen Garmin displays, radar, CHIRP transducers, high-performance stereos and digital controls,” he says. “There’s more seating, towing equipment, water access and entertainment options. High-efficiency inverters and wiring systems power all this stuff. Customers love the technology as long as it’s easy to use and performs.”

Aesthetics count

Amid a sea of white fiberglass look-alikes, distinctiveness and styling are also strengths. Some boomers are looking for a boat that makes a statement. Maybe it’s one with classic looks. Or one of the new generation of big center consoles with three or four outboards on the transom.

“Our customer base is still 50-plus in age, and they’ve owned a lot of boats,” says Perkins. “We’re dealing with a lot of people downsizing and coming out of sail. They want a classic look, a distinctive look, that Down East look.”

Boats should “tug on the heartstrings,” in the words of designer Bob Stephens. You want to build a boat that makes owners stop and look back at least once as they walk off the dock at the end of a day. Create boats that are objects of desire, ones that make the proud owner want to run his or her hands over them. The emotional connection between owners and the boats they love can’t be overlooked or overvalued.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.

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