Brunswick Corp. is known for its 15 boat companies and the Mercury engine brand, but it also owns more than 40 parts-and-accessories companies, which account for roughly 30 percent ($1.4 billion) of net sales. About 75 percent of those parts-and-accessories sales are aftermarket, and most are such day-to-day staples — oil, filters, tow bars — that they hardly get a second thought.
But Brunswick, like other companies in the marine aftermarket, is thinking a lot about how to protect those sales these days. Two trends in particular are affecting the marine aftermarket: the continuing rise of e-commerce and the movement toward easy-to-use, integrated on-board systems.
The rise of e-commerce is not just important; it marks one of the biggest changes the aftermarket business has ever experienced, and it’s affecting business even though aftermarket sales are countercyclical. “Even in a downturn, people still use their boats,” says Chris Drees, president of Mercury Marine, “and they still need all those items that make their boat run and that allow them to enjoy their experience.”
At the same time, the movement toward integrated systems includes everything from joystick operation to app-controlled lighting to a single touchpad that runs nearly the entire boat. Boaters are starting to expect aftermarket options to integrate to their existing boats. “Many of these products are developed for the OEM market, and they have a gee-whiz factor that then becomes an expectation,” says David Johnson, senior vice president at Power Products, which Brunswick bought in 2018. “But there are about 225,000 new boats sold a year and about 12 million registered boats overall, so to get deeper penetration, we have to make it accessible to the aftermarket, too.”
Johnson, who spent 13 years at West Marine before moving to the manufacturing side of the industry, sees the Internet as just another sales channel, “like discount stores and catalogs,” he says. “The dealers who figure it out will thrive.”
About 88 percent of purchases start with online research, according to a 2017 report by the Ecommerce Foundation, so sales success online starts with well-presented, reliable information and a means to convert those researchers to buyers. Smart dealers work with distributors to build a Web presence, which the dealer can use as a direct interface with customers while the distributor handles the back-end fulfillment. Offering perks such as discounts or loyalty programs can help close a sale, but the real opportunity is in after-sale support. “The dealer can offer that expertise in installation and service that no one else can,” Drees says.
Dealers also can keep existing customers close by leveraging the technology on their boats. Mercury’s VesselView monitors a range of engine functions, so it knows when a boat might need an oil change, a new belt or a rebuilt impeller. If the boater opts into sharing such data, then Mercury can alert the dealer, who can text or email the boat owner about service.
Of course, many buyers go directly to Amazon, so sellers should be there, too. “Everything is going to end up on there anyway, so you might as well make sure it’s presented in the best light, with the right photos and information, and get a piece of the business,” Johnson says.
On Amazon, dealers are setting up storefronts or registering to fulfill orders that are placed on Amazon’s platform, potentially picking up sales from anywhere in the world.
More and more boaters also are seeking out aftermarket technology that mirrors what they have in their homes and cars. “Most cars now have proximity sensors so that when you approach and you have that key fob in your pocket, the doors unlock and the lights go on,” Johnson says. “Why shouldn’t people have that on their boats?”
Arguably, such an amenity is even more useful on a boat, where an owner might have to run the blower and the bilge pumps, flip the battery switch, turn on the freshwater pump, and boot up the electronics and gyrostabilizer before even thinking about leaving the dock. New integrated systems allow all those functions to funnel into one control pad so they can be programmed to activate with a single button push or from an app before the boater steps off the dock.
Such integrated systems rely on a single electrical cable that runs through the boat — the digital backbone — and that connects to all manner of electronics through the National Marine Electronics Association’s N2K protocol, allowing the electronics to communicate with one another and to be integrated into multifunction displays. The setups became common in new boats about 10 years ago, and in recent years, the addition of digital switching — which allows everything from pumps to lights to tap into the backbone — has brought nearly every item of electrical equipment together. The system is programmable, which means, yes, it can turn on the lights, but it also can adjust the trim automatically or manipulate engine rpm to optimize the wake for wakeboarding.
Boats that have a digital backbone but missed the arrival of digital switching can retrofit with Brunswick’s CZone system. It’s not a DIY project, but it offers a lot, especially for larger boats with complex systems. “I’ve seen a lot of old boats get new life breathed into them,” says Dan Balogh, director of engineering at Mercury Marine.
Later this year, Johnson says, the company will roll out Contact 6 and Contact 12, which are NMEA limited circuits that can bring digital switching to smaller boats with DIY kits.
“We’re all about the experience of boating, making it as easy and enjoyable as possible,” Drees says. “So instead of 50 switches and multiple gauges, boaters now have one touch screen, and that improves the quality of their time on the water.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.