It is difficult to fill a bucket with water if the bucket is full of holes. Yet that is what the boating industry has been trying to do for decades.
The Discover Boating campaign is spending a lot of money to recruit first-time boat buyers. However, data from boat registrations, provided by Infolink, show that during a 12-year period starting in 2005, a full 54 percent of the 564,000 first-time buyers had sold their boats and not bought another one. And during the six-year period ending in 2018, some 39 percent of the 380,000 first-time buyers had done the same thing.
Not only has the industry seen a marked decline in first-time buyers, but we are failing to retain them and sell them a second, third or fourth boat during their lifetimes. Research has identified the hassle, effort and cost surrounding boat ownership as the reasons for this trend.
Doctoral candidates at DePaul University took on the challenge to define, more specifically, factors leading to first-time-buyer attrition and what might be done about it. Research has shown that leisure constraints can be intrapersonal (shyness, poor health or lack of skill), interpersonal (conflicting schedules, family obligations, lack of activity partners) and structural (lack of convenient facilities, time limitations, lack of affordable options). These constraints affect the extent to which an individual specializes in an activity.
In examining the registration data that Infolink provided, we found that first-time-buyer attrition was consistent across boat types (with runabouts and sailboats having slightly higher attrition), remarkably consistent across boat lengths and not particularly sensitive to changes in the economy. The pace of boat owners selling their boats was stable over time.
One of the key findings, however, was that first-time-buyer attrition was much lower among those who bought a new boat (presumably from a dealer) and much higher among those who bought a preowned boat (presumably not from a dealer, since the vast majority of preowned boat sales do not go through new-boat dealers). Thus, one way to reduce first-time-buyer attrition might be to drive more preowned boat sales through new-boat dealers.
This idea presents a major challenge, but inventory financing for preowned boats and certified preowned programs, combined with a major advertising push of the benefits of buying from a certified boat dealer, might begin to turn this tide.
Another interesting facet of the research was that to learn specific reasons for attrition in the boaters’ own words, 20 one-on-one interviews were conducted. Researchers surveyed first-time buyers who still owned their boats, and first-time buyers who had sold their boats and not purchased another. We found significant differences between these two groups that suggested potential paths to increasing retention.
Lapsed first-time buyers reported significantly less boating experience. To help them gain more experience, dealers, manufacturers and marinas should create opportunities to go boating more frequently. Some dealers and manufacturers do this through rendezvous and other get-togethers. Perhaps we need more of these activities targeted to first-time buyers.
In addition, lapsed first-time buyers reported a significantly lower ability to operate a boat, fewer boating skills and less boating-related knowledge than continuing first-time buyers. While efforts to encourage boating might address this problem, the industry might also make training — especially hands-on, on-the-water training — more readily available. Perhaps even include it in the cost of the boat, or offer it as an up-sell.
The cost of maintenance, and the time and effort involved in maintenance, also were perceived as significantly higher for lapsed first-time buyers. To address this problem, we should find a way to include one or two years of maintenance in the cost of the boat or as an up-sell, as some automakers do.
Storing their boat was also a bigger challenge for lapsed first-time buyers, as they perceived the cost and effort as being significantly higher than continuing first-time buyers did. As with maintenance, including one or two years of storage in the cost of the boat or as an up-sell might help the industry retain more first-time buyers.
Then there are the “hidden costs” of boat ownership. Lapsed first-time buyers had lower expectations around the costs of boat ownership. More transparency about the costs, especially for first-time buyers, might turn more of them into lifelong boat owners.
Finally, lapsed first-time buyers reported a lower level of commitment to boat ownership and less identification as a boater. Do I organize my life around boating? Do people think of me as a boater? Does my boat say a lot about who I am? Is my boat important to me? Does participation in boating contribute to my self-esteem?
Assimilating first-time buyers into the community of boaters might help develop the answers to those questions while addressing some of the other problems that exist. If we transform the boating experience for first-time buyers, then we could retain significantly more of them and grow the boating industry.
Boat clubs have figured out how to address a lot of the issues that first-time buyers face, and boat clubs are thriving. Dealers who take new approaches to helping first-time buyers solve these problems are also seeing success.
Smart people should be able to create new models of boat ownership that address these issues, as well. At a minimum, we need to think of first-time buyers much differently.
Thom Dammrich holds a Ph.D. in business administration. He is expected to retire this year as president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. In 2018, Dammrich was named to the NMMA Hall of Fame.