The industry drumbeat in recent years has been the urgent need to draw new people into the boating lifestyle — and to sell them new boats. The prized first-time buyer has the potential — with excellent dealer service and dutiful care — to turn into a repeat customer several times over.
“New boaters are our primary customers, and we cater to them with everything — from paying for their boating license and registration to training them to operate the boat and picking up the boat each fall for winter servicing and delivering it to their door each spring,” says David Schmitt, sales manager for Buster’s Marine Service in the New York City borough of Queens.
At this year’s New York Boat Show, Bayliner Boats named Buster’s Marine its “single location dealer of the year” in the United States. The award, for model year 2015, is the first time the dealership has earned this distinction for total unit sales nationwide — all the more impressive considering Buster’s only picked up the Bayliner brand two years ago.
“It starts with an attitude at the dealer level, and Dave’s team does a great job of building on the Bayliner brand,” Bayliner president Keith Yunger said after the award presentation.
Yunger says Bayliner introduces three new models each year to keep its portfolio fresh. That strategy, backed by an aggressive marketing campaign, produced significant year-over-year growth for the brand in 2015 in the 16- to 23-foot powerboat segment, he says.
Schmitt says a promotional push is just as important at the dealer level.
“My job is to let the world know this is not your father’s Bayliner,” he says. “It’s a brand-new boat with a brand-new line.”
Schmitt says the dealership employs “out-of-the-box marketing” techniques. Among them, he says, is displaying a Bayliner with a dealer representative at a local Wal-Mart to reach out and educate non-boaters. Another is to tow one of his boats in the town’s annual Fourth of July parade.
Though he declines to give specifics, Schmitt says Buster’s saw new unit sales increase 160 percent from 2014 to 2015. He also says the dealership, which has showrooms in Queens and Brooklyn, also was the top dealer for Mercury inflatable boats in the United States for 2015.
“I like that segment of the market,” he says. “I like selling more volume at a lower price. It generates so many customers.”
Schmitt says Bayliners are a good match for his mostly working-class customers in the city and nearby Long Island.
“I love selling Bayliners,” he says. “It’s our market for our clientele. The boats are just so affordable. I tell my potential customers that for $100 to $200 a month they can get into boating. That’s a cable bill. It’s a great way to introduce people into affordable boating. There aren’t many bells and whistles, but there’s also not a lot that can go wrong, and that’s key to first-time buyers.”
And if these prized buyers don’t come to his door, he’ll try to meet them at a boat show.
“We did 14 boat shows last year, which is probably more than most small dealers, but we find the boat shows are what’s really helped, especially with the Mercury inflatables,” Schmitt says.
After New York, his nearly non-stop boat show road trip moves to Baltimore, to Atlantic City (while another Buster’s team hits Providence, R.I.) to Miami, and to Boston. “It’s a lot of work going to so many shows, but clearly we’re doing something right because the sales are there and the volume is there.”
Big Apple roots
Schmitt, 37, is a fourth-generation family member working in the marine retail business.
“Buster is my dad, and he owns and manages the business,” he says. “My great-grandfather started it all with a bait-and-tackle shop he opened in Queens back about 75 years ago. My father started Buster’s 42 years ago. When he was a kid, his job was to row customers out to their moored boats.”
After working during the summers at Buster’s through high school and earning a business degree in college, Schmitt formally joined the family business.
“It’s a very family-oriented business, including myself, my brother, mom and dad, and two of my former college roommates.”
He describes Broad Channel, a small neighborhood on the south shore of Queens, as “an island surrounded by water, and everyone in town is a boater. My parents both grew up there. We are very entwined in the community.”
Like other coastal businesses along the New York and New Jersey shorelines, Buster’s was dealt a potentially fatal blow by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“Broad Channel was almost completely wiped out by Sandy,” he says. “We were crushed by this hurricane, with 7 feet of water in our building. We had fluorescent light bulbs on the ceiling with water in them.”
Schmitt takes pride in saying that although other local businesses packed up and left, “we not only rebuilt, but we got stronger and bigger and better and had the best year in our history in 2015.”
Secret to success
Schmitt says the dealership’s quick recovery comes down to knowing its customers and delivering above and beyond what they expect for service.
“My dad always said, upset one person and they’ll tell 100 people; make one person happy and they’ll tell 100 people, and that’s how we do business,” he says.
Buster’s customers are generally either looking to get into boating for the first time or to get back into boating at an affordable price — blue-collar people, including firemen, police and sanitation workers.
“My dad also always said to pick one product and be the best at selling it,” Schmidt says. The dealership is partnered exclusively with the Brunswick brand, and Bayliners offer the versatility his customers want.
“You can fish, ski, tube, cruise on them, and they have a high occupant capacity for a compact boat,” he says.
Beyond the sale
A boat sale is just the beginning of the relationship Buster’s cultivates with its newbie customers.
“We start with free winter storage and spring delivery to your door with a captain, who will spend three or four hours showing you how to drive that boat, teach you how to maintain, dock and anchor the boat,” Schmitt says. “ ‘You’re going to use your boat,’ we tell them.”
After four weeks, customers get a survey card from Buster’s asking whether there are any problems.
Also included in the purchase price is a full prep, including bottom paint, a full tank of gas, fenders and an anchor. After the first year, Buster’s will pick up the boat from a customer’s house, address any warranty issues, pressure-wash, detail, winterize, and shrink-wrap and store the boat until the next spring delivery for $1,500.
“To me it seems a no-brainer — the perfect way to get into boating,” Schmitt says.
He notes that Buster’s CSI ratings are near the 99th percentile, and each customer gets his personal cellphone number.
“We look at it as all the people we can reach are potential buyers. Our segment is largely untapped because many of these people don’t know they can afford to get into boating,” he says. “With the loyal backing from Brunswick and Bayliner, my only job is to sell the boats and please the customer.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.