With an estimated 141.6 million Americans boating each year, the industry generates $170.3 billion in economic activity for our country. It’s a statistic that we often share to promote how large the marine industry is—but the reality is that our industry is really a collection of small industries. And because of this segmentation, we can lose sight of how best to find new buyers and promote our industry as a whole.
Think about how diverse boats can be. Flats boats are for shallow-water fishing and you wouldn’t take them far offshore. Offshore fishing boats are usually too large for small inland lakes. Aluminum fishing boats don’t excel at pulling skiers. Wake boats aren’t used for cruising and yachts aren’t used for wakeboarding. While there can be some overlap of uses between segments, each segment has its own owner demographic and user-affinity group. And each segment wants to find more owners.
But marketing specific product features is the least-effective way to find new boaters. We continue to sell product and features when the consumer is looking to buy an experience.
Sure, selling specific product features might work for a repeat buyer who has already decided his primary use is offshore or freshwater fishing, wakeboarding or cruising, or relaxing for a drink before dinner on a pontoon boat at the lake house. For the first-time boat buyer, however, the product and features are meaningless compared to the knowledge that boating can deliver the experiences he is dreaming about. We don’t buy a refrigerator because we want a refrigerator; we buy a refrigerator because we want cold food and drinks on demand. The same shopping impulse is true with boats. Our experiences with them are the ultimate sales pitch.
I continue to feel that the boating industry is too product- and sales-focused. Don’t get me wrong: Products and sales are important. However, we will sell more product if we put more focus on the owner’s experience.
This experience doesn’t start when the potential buyer goes on the water. It starts when he is first exposed to our industry, in our marketing. Manufacturers and dealers are guilty of focusing on the person ready to buy this week, while ignoring people who may be six months or a year away from buying. Yet, research tells us the purchase journey for a first-time boat buyer can be 12 months or more. We must become effective nurture-marketers, helping first-time buyers purchase at their own pace.
For 20 years, I have said this industry is slow to change. Yes, it’s true that we can innovate product rapidly—and that we need to, or the consumer will just buy pre-owned. It’s also true that as an industry, we are producing dramatically better products than we were 20 years ago, and we are giving the boat buyer a better sales and service experience than ever. Yet despite our improvements, we still have a long way to go in serving the consumer and in delivering a marketing and sales experience that invites more consumers into boating.
There are too many in our industry who only care about the next sale. And, there are too many manufacturers who refuse to certify their products to the industry’s safety standards, support advocacy efforts and get behind efforts to grow our industry.
I wrote an article for this magazine’s July issue describing research that highlighted some causes of first-time boat buyer attrition. We lose half of first-time boat buyers in the first five years of ownership—and we lose them forever. We’re now selling boats to one-fifth of the number of first-time boat buyers of 20 years ago. And, we retain only half of them.
We are lucky to retain even that many if numbers from the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas are right. MRAA President Matt Gruhn shared a statistic that only 15 percent of boat buyers ever have contact with their dealer after the sale. If this lack of engagement after the sale doesn’t give you pause, it should. It’s no wonder boat registrations have been flat or slightly declining for more than a decade.
Discover Boating research shows that just 1 percent of potential first-time boat buyers make it through the path to purchase and buy a boat. The first-time boat buyer of years past who is not buying today, and the first-time boat buyer who leaves in the first five years, is not around to buy his second, third, fourth or fifth boat. Anyone can do the math. If we provided a better experience on the path to purchase and got 2 percent or 3 percent of people to take the final step to ownership instead of 1 percent, and if we retained 75 percent of first-time boat buyers instead of 50 percent, then we’d be creating a much brighter future for our industry.
What can help us ensure that bright future?
It’s when someone takes a cue from boat clubs and devises a boat-ownership model that addresses the causes of boater attrition (the costs and efforts of maintenance and storage, lack of identification as a boater, failure to become part of a boating community, and unexpected costs of ownership).
It’s when we focus on selling the experience—the entire experience from marketing to sales to being on the water—instead of selling the product.
It’s when we start nurture-marketing and building a pipeline of future customers, instead of only focusing on the person ready to buy right now.
And speaking of experiences, consumers today are also used to having information at their fingertips. So, why do we still not include prices for consumers online, in a world where the internet has made transparency the expectation, not the exception? Why do we have MSRPs that bear no relation to selling prices?
Recent research I conducted as part of my doctorate in business administration showed that displaying a price on the internet actually increases a person’s search on her path to purchase. It also increases leads and purchase intent.
I care deeply about this industry and the people who make it run each day. I encourage our business owners to hit reset. I have often said that if we were designing this industry from the ground up, there would be very little we would do the way we do it now.Let’s not hang on to assumptions about the world of boating that may no longer apply.
Do we really have to wait until the fear of survival is stronger than our fear of change?
Americans love being on the water. Our sport makes them healthier, more relaxed and balanced, lets them have more fun and helps them develop strong relationships. For these reasons, boating isn’t going away.
The sport will be dramatically different, though, in the next 20 years.
How we adapt and change as an industry will determine whether those 20 years see stagnation and decline based on the current model for doing business, or rapid growth and excitement from evolving quickly to a business model more in step with today’s consumer.
I’m an optimist. I believe we will make the changes that need to be made:
• Move from a focus on selling product to a focus on marketing and selling experience;
• Nurture potential owners through the path to purchase instead of focusing only on the person ready to buy today;
• Create an ownership model that addresses the major causes of attrition (like boat clubs have done);
• Abandon MSRPs that bear no relation to selling price, and adopt minimum advertised prices that can be promoted on the internet to increase search during the path to purchase, increase leads and increase sales;
• Recognize that the path to purchase doesn’t end with the sale, and that it begins anew with the sale as we nurture our new boat buyer along the path to purchase of his second, third and fourth boat;
• Continuously question assumptions that drive the way we do business as we adapt to a rapidly changing consumer, including seeing what is working in other industries and recognizing that it will work in boating too.
The boating industry is blessed with strong associations and leaders who can help navigate the needed changes. Frank Hugelmeyer, my successor at NMMA, and Gruhn of MRAA will provide great leadership in the years ahead.
Hugelmeyer has excellent insights into changing consumer behavior and what it will take to be successful. I am confident that, together with their colleagues and business leaders across the industry, they will help our industry find the path to great prosperity in the years ahead.
I am grateful to everyone who has challenged me, supported me and NMMA, and contributed to how far our industry has come in 20 years. You’ve made my journey far more rewarding than you’ll ever know.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.