Selling Ferraris and Bentleys

When a customer buys a $400,000 boat, expectations are sky high
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What has changed in the boat business since my parents started their dealership more than 60 years ago? Almost everything. Personally, I have come full circle, from working with my Mom and Pop out of a one-stall garage to working with MarineMax, the world’s premier marine retailer. I’ve seen it all.

My perspective began as a child in the 1950s. I witnessed the birth of recreational boating and marine retailing as we know it today. As an only child, I was my father’s constant companion. He wanted me to know, learn and experience all I could about the business and how to deliver service to customers. I would get pulled out of school to go to the New York Boat Show, to visit a boat factory or attend a trade show.

As early as I can recall, working in the boat business was the only thing I wanted to do. I wanted to grow up and be just like my dad: have a family, own a business and have fun every day at work.

A decade later, I learned that the boat business isn’t fun every day. In the ’60s, I saw the transformation of an industry as it went from building boats from trees to building boats from chemicals. This transition took its toll on a generation who grew up as tradesmen, working with their hands, shaping wood into boats of various types. These were stressful times, as woodworking skills did not transition well into building molds and laying up fiberglass. Cloth and resin replaced paint and varnish.

Navigating the ’70s was a bumpy ride, too, as most old-school, wooden-boat builders failed. As the end of the decade rolled around, the industry had stabilized and found its way to building everything out of fiberglass — except, of course, aluminum boats, which had been perfected in the ’50s through techniques acquired from aircraft manufacturing.

The biggest change I have seen in the past 40 years is the impact of technology on the boating experience and the customer’s expectation of performance. In the ’50s, my parents had a 32-foot wooden cruiser with a 6-cylinder gasoline engine. It had only two things that required electricity to operate: the engine starter and the lights. We pumped the galley water, head, alcohol stove and bilge water by hand. Even the horn was a hand-operated air pump. Everything was easy to understand, and nothing failed to operate. Therefore, our boating experiences were almost always fun.

Fast-forward to today. We sell a premium 32-foot dayboat with a suggested retail price of $409,000, and it is loaded with features, options, gadgets and space-age technology. There are twin engines, a joystick, Skyhook digital anchor, automatic trim tabs, radar, a chart plotter and more.

The boat has seven batteries to power its “must-have” features, which I assume originate from consumer demand. The expectation is that all of these features will always perform and will all contribute to a more pleasurable experience on the water. This is seldom true. Something is always inoperable. The more equipment you add to anything, the greater the risk that something will fail.

My son, Larry Jr., reminds our team at MarineMax that we are not selling boats. We are selling Ferraris and Bentleys. There is an extremely high customer expectation that comes with a $400,000 purchase.

Looking back 40 years, consumer expectations were practically nonexistent. If something didn’t work, the boat owner fixed it himself. Those days are gone. The burden is now 100 percent on the dealer.

As with so many things nowadays, life with a boat, as well as the whole boating business, are a lot more complicated. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.

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