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Mind the Gap

A new study reveals a difference between intention and reality when it comes to consumers keeping their boats
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In the London Underground, an automated voice warns passengers, quite simply, to “mind the gap.” In this reference, “the gap” refers to the spatial distance between the train door and the station platform. Officials chose the phrase for its concise nature.

I was reminded of the phrase recently because of a boat ownership study with a contradicting revelation that revealed a gap of a different kind. The study — funded by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, Discover Boating and the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas — showed that a vast majority of first-time and repeat boat buyers intend to remain in boating. This is great news. However, it directly contradicts what reality has told us, which is that somewhere around 40 percent of first-time boat buyers leave boating, sell their boat and don’t replace it within five years of their initial purchase. And there is the gap: It’s a gap between intention and reality.

In the study, 85 percent of boat buyers from 2020 and early 2021 suggested that they intend to remain in boating during the next five years. But no one knows where their lives will take them in that time. Maybe the economy will tank. Maybe they will have a job change, a relocation. Or maybe they will have issues with their boat. Something could lead them to change their minds.

The point is, very few people buy a boat with the expectation that they’ll dislike boating and be done with it in five years or less. So what happens in the interim? In that gap? What causes them to change their minds? How does their ownership experience define their decision-making about whether they should keep or sell their boat? And, most important, how can you and your business affect that decision-making?

Like in the London Underground, folks can alert marine businesses to this gap, but those on the receiving end of the message must pay attention to get safely to the other side.

Customer Journey from Left Brain Marketing

When we set out to launch this study, our main priority was not just to gather data, but rather to deliver insights that would help business owners meet the expectations of today’s customers and, ultimately, strengthen businesses for the future. The study will be discussed in a June MRAA “Ask The Expert” webinar, but in the interim, here’s some advice I’ve gleaned from analyzing the results.

Ultimately, there are three main areas that drive dissatisfaction among boat owners: the cost and length of time it takes to service a boat; poor understanding of the features and function of the boat; and the frequency with which they get out on the water (less time boating equals less satisfaction). The MRAA exists entirely to help business owners overcome these types of challenges. We offer insights on MRAA.com, have staff available to answer questions, put on Dealer Week in December, and offer an online educational portal packed with strategies and best practices for taking care of the customer. In fact, we’re addressing the eight-step customer journey in a significant way at MRAA.com/BoaterExperience.

Generally speaking, though, it’s clear that there is an attrition problem in the boating industry, and likely in most dealerships, too. Some 40 percent of first-time boat buyers leave our industry in the first five years, a chunk so big that preventing the exodus of even a small percentage of them could have a significant impact on the industry’s collective health and prosperity.

Step one in achieving that goal is creating systems that better prepare customers to know how to use their boat, including even the most basic features and functions that dealers may skip over in delivery and orientation. By creating ways — through events, activities, clubs or other opportunities — to get customers out on the water more frequently, dealers help customers justify the ongoing expense of boating. Improved service departments, too, are helpful. They reduce wait times, get customers back on the water faster, and bring in more money for the dealership.

It’s critical that we all mind this gap between customer intentions and reality. It plays out over several months and years, which means our systems and processes must create consistencies for the long term. This gap also continually changes shape as customer expectations increase, especially regarding discretionary funds for a high-dollar purchase like a boat. The customer experience needs to be improving every day.

Now that we all know what the gap is, we need to focus on it and mind it. 

Matt Gruhn is president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.

Matt Gruhn is president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.

This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.

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