West Marine’s flagship philosophy

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Retailer opens two more mega-stores as part of its plan for riding out recession, building for future

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Last year, West Marine closed 32 stores, opened five new ones and expanded seven - all part of a dual vision of simultaneously focusing on consolidation and expansion while improving customer service and building for the future.

"We are living through a tough market, but we think we will come out in very good shape," CEO Geoff Eisenberg recently told Trade Only.

West Marine currently has 342 stores nationwide, including a new flagship facility in Brick, N.J. Trade Only attended the store opening in April. Flagship stores are larger than typical West Marine locations and are designed around the concept of one-stop shopping. The Brick outlet is a prime example of West Marine's strategy for the future.

"We started talking about doing this store a year ago to combine our two branches in Brick," says Eisenberg. The store has 37 people on staff, many of whom transferred from the original two stores.

The Brick location is West Marine's fourth flagship store. A 30,000-square-foot facility in Jacksonville, Fla. - the flagship of its flagships - opened in March.

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"We're more of a destination company, so you won't see us in shopping malls," says Eisenberg. "We consider ourselves boaters, and we cater to boaters."

The 25,500-square-foot Brick store is nearly three times the size of a typical West Marine store (about 9,000 square feet). This new flagship facility includes an expanded fishing section, with hundreds of rods and reels, a bait freezer and a broad assortment of fishing gear; a clothing section; hardware and parts; electronics; and kayaks and dinghies.

"We're not a cookie-cutter type of mentality," says Eisenberg. "We approach every project differently, looking at the location and the market." He says the company analyzes a lot of data on its customer base in making store decisions.

The Brick location formerly was a furniture store. "We invested over a million [dollars] into renovating it," says Eisenberg. "We always try to find an existing building and suit it to our needs, rather than trying to build new, because it is more economical in the long run."

An exception is Jacksonville. That store was built from the ground up and includes skylights with reflectors controlled by roof-mounted GPS units that maximize natural lighting as the day progresses, reducing electricity needs. An installation that sophisticated at an existing building would have been too costly.

Eisenberg says each location is different, and the company looks to the individual attributes of each site. He says West Marine first started testing the concept of flagship stores in 2003 in San Diego and Fort Lauderdale.

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"They are totally different stores than our new ones here in Brick and in Jacksonville," says Eisenberg. "Our thinking six years ago is not at all our thinking now. Our layout is different, our color fixtures are different, our technology is different. The store should be what the customer wants and needs - now and into the future."

Focus on training

Another example of the company's customer satisfaction efforts is the training of sales associates by vendors of the products sold in the larger flagship stores. Erik Rimblas, southeast regional manager responsible for sales and operations for 111 stores from South Carolina to Texas and Puerto Rico, attended the Brick grand opening and says the company brought in 30 vendors to do training sessions on how their products should be used.

"This is really an intense level of training that we haven't done before," says Eisenberg.

Thanks to the Internet, says Eisenberg, today's boater is much better educated and more technologically savvy. More than ever, that requires an informed staff capable of answering specific questions on a broad range of topics. For example, Brad Ries, electronics manager at the Brick store, can address much more than just electronics.

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"Capt. Brad Ries is a trained specialist in not only electronics, but he could tell you what kind of cleat would be right for your boat," says Eisenberg. "It's the confidence that the customer is going to be getting the right product."

West Marine sales associates are not paid on commission, he says, which helps the customer get the right product he or she needs.

Eisenberg says associate training was first tested at the Jacksonville and Brick stores, and will likely be implemented at other larger locations.

Video stations

Education is another aspect West Marine is emphasizing - for customers as well as sales staff. Throughout the Brick store are stations that play educational videos, from the proper way to put on a PFD to docking techniques. (The videos also can be accessed through the company Web site at www.westmarine.com.) Speakers at the video stations are mounted from the ceiling in clear plastic domes that focus sound downward, so the person standing beneath the dome can clearly hear the audio, but it's not intrusive to other shoppers. West Marine currently has about 140 videos, rotating them in ways that seem appropriate.

The Brick store also contains the largest electronics selection of any of the stores in the Northeast - 156 units on display, with sound-system options in a full-size flybridge in the center of the store. "The typical West Marine store may have 30 to 60 displays, so this is really unique," says electronics manager Ries. "Also, we decided to install our sound-system options on the inside of the flybridge so people would know how it really sounds encased in fiberglass."

West Marine clearly is not immune to the effects of the recession. It reported a 10.9 percent drop in net revenues for the first quarter. However, operating results improved by $11 million compared to last year, according to the company's first quarter earnings report, which was released April 30.

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In reaction to the Boater's World bankruptcy and liquidation this spring, Eisenberg says the loss of healthy competition can create complacency. "Unfortunately the market's weak, and not everyone survives," he says. "We don't like to see anyone fail. ... It puts more responsibility on us because our customers have less choices."

Eisenberg says the Brick store is one step in a five-year plan to provide more services and products to keep customers coming back and fuel their passion for boating. "If this store will be profitable remains to be seen," he says. "But people have loved boating for thousands of years and will love it for thousands of years more."

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.

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