At the recent Sailing Industry Conference, one of the hottest topics receiving rave reviews from event attendees was the session addressing the face of today’s changing consumer. Barrett Canfield, president of South Coast Yachts, San Diego, presented a compelling presentation entitled “The Sailboat Buyer of 2010 and Beyond,” based on his extensive retail experience.
Canfield grew up sailing on Manhasset Bay on Long Island Sound and propelled his love of sailing into a prolific industry career. He worked as a base manager at CYC in St. Thomas in the early nineties, then sold sailboats for Cape Yachts for six years. He was tapped as vice president of Southwestern Yachts during the major growth period of 2001 through 2009 and lived through the rise and fall of one of the largest dealers in the USA. In July 2009, despite the toughest economy to rock the country in decades, he launched South Coast Yachts, a Beneteau dealership selling both new and brokerage boats.
He shares with Waypoints what he’s learned over the years about specific buyer attitudes and profiles, and what he believes is required to make the sale today.
Waypoints: You've obviously been selling sailboats for a long time. When and how did you first really begin to understand that all buyers are not created and wired equally?
Canfield: I’ve been selling boats for almost 20 years, but my move to the West Coast from Cape Cod 10 years ago was the biggest education on the variety of boat buyers. Coming from New England, I was used to buyers who usually came from many generations of sailors or boaters, so they had lots of opinions and different experience engrained in their approach to buying a boat. There are plenty of very experienced boaters on the West Coast, but I was introduced to many more new boaters, just interested in trying out the sport and lifestyle. People on the West Coast seemed to be more impulsive when they found what they liked and their buying decision was heavily influenced by the “WOW” factor. In boat sales, you have to be very open minded, non-judgmental, flexible, and expect the unexpected from boat buyers. It is actually very exciting and entertaining to meet these people and create long- lasting (many boat) relationships with them.
Waypoints: In your retail sales experience, how do the economic shifts such as we have experienced impact consumer buying profiles and tendencies?
Canfield: We all learned that the most conservative prospects held tight and hunkered down during the downturn. We had fewer and fewer young families pushing strollers into our South Coast Yachts office in 2008 and 2009. Sailboat sales (which is our focus) dipped, but not nearly as much as powerboat sales, so the conservative sailor with the money to buy a boat was buying in those years and still is today. They were taking advantage of the buyer’s market and had the cash to do so. The typical deal now takes 12-14 steps rather than four to five steps of a 2006 deal. More test sails, “thinking about it,” options research and testimonials are all needed. The amount of buyers who asked about financing their purchase dropped significantly in ’08 and ’09. Rumors spread about it being very difficult to get financing, but that actually was not the case. You just had to prove a little more about your financial situation than before, and rates are actually very low. We’ve also met buyers who had no emotional connection with their purchase; it was simply “the deal.” That is a tough one for most of us in the industry who are passionate about our boats and services.
The bright part is that in 2010, the strollers started to roll back in the door and sales increased in some markets over 2009. I think that most people think that the worst is over and it is time to get out on the water, but they still want “the deal!” I heard a colleague on the dock yesterday say that our business is “idling in forward…..with a few bursts of throttle.” Forward is good!
Waypoints: In your Sailing Industry Conference presentation, you showed a chart outlining the four most common types of buyers from the 2008 - 2010 time period. Let's talk about each of them. First, tell me about the primary characteristics of what you call BOTTOM FEEDERS.
Canfield: As I touched on above, these folks are the ones who are emotionally disconnected and are just focused on getting the deal for as close to nothing as possible. (I can feel the reader’s teeth grinding already!) It’s almost sport to them. I have to say that it is not enjoyable dealing with them. There is no relationship and even the specific boat or product is not very important. They are talking to you because they think that someone is hurting badly and they’d like to take advantage of that……not fun! But remember: they are buying!
Waypoints: What strategies do you use to successfully sell to these folks?
Canfield: These folks usually have big egos, so the “stroke” is very important. You need to confide in, and then convince them that their deal IS the absolute bottom. They will not follow up with you, so very strong follow up is important. I try to find the human being and the slightest scent of emotion in them. They have to be interested in the boat for some emotional reason. They also think that the boss is their only path to the best deal, so BE the boss. Use testimonials as credibility statements and find commonalities to gain their respect.
Waypoints: Secondly, you identify a profile as THE CONSERVATIVE MATURE SAILOR. Who are they?
Canfield: Here’s an outline: they’ve owned many boats, they are 55-70 years old. They’re in your database already. The recession has not affected them much. They are CASH buyers with no need to finance. They’re taking advantage of the buyer’s market. They will probably have a trade-in. Relationship with them is very important. They are savvy investors and probably yacht club members.
Waypoints: What strategies do you use to find and attract these buyers?
Canfield: Reputation and word-of-mouth advertising is most important with these folks. Protect your integrity and reputation with all that you have and you will attract them.
These people are usually boat owners already, so they are on the dock. I do regular dock walks on Friday afternoon and the weekends to stay in contact. You must stay visible.
Hosting and organizing social and sailing events like rendezvous and regattas will attract them. They don’t like to be sold, so help them buy at their convenience. Building rapport and relationship and investing time in them is very important.
These people are very respected in their community, so treating them with respect and being professional and respectful will help you make headway. With all buyers, doing what you say you are going to do goes a long way.
They are also interested in getting the best deal, but most likely will not want to haggle back and forth. Their time is very precious, so offer the best deal in confidence, once the rapport and relationship is established. They will respect you for saying no; but don’t let them get away!
Waypoints: Third, you reference a group you call THE UNAFFECTED. Who are they?
Canfield: Identifying them is one of the most challenging things right now for salespeople. If we were to judge by looks, we would probably disqualify them quickly and miss a sale to a great customer! They don’t look like the “typical” boater or sailor. It is VERY important not to judge by looks or clothes, but be open and interested in everyone you meet. They are very casual and emotionally driven to buy a boat. They appear happy and carefree. For some reason, they are most likely recession-proof and make impulsive decisions to live life to its fullest now (sounds nice, huh?). They will be your best customer and will be a lot of fun to work with. They will send you many referrals and always be a joy to see out there, enjoying your product.
Waypoints: What strategies must you use to find and attract them?
Canfield: Marketing the lifestyle improvements that you have to offer should be a major part of your company and personal marketing, and both will attract them. They are attracted to the benefits, not the features, details, or price.
You should do all of the work for them so that the process “flows” smoothly. Make the purchase easy for them. Take time to connect with them and find commonalities that build rapport. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and share the joy of their goals. If you are focused on helping others and improving their lives with your product, you will see direct results immediately with these great customers!
Waypoints: Lots of manufacturers in both the power and sail segment have found new sales opportunities outside the U.S. Is this what you refer to as THE FOREIGN CURRENCY SAILOR?
Canfield: For a sailboat dealership like South Coast Yachts, these buyers affected our brokerage numbers positively in the last three years. They are people from overseas who are carefully monitoring the fluctuations in currencies and contacting us via email when their advantage is evident. Since we have new boat territories that are respected within a strong Beneteau dealer network, we avoid marketing new boats this way. On the brokerage side, it is a great opportunity to move some boats for your customers looking to sell.
Waypoints: Based on your experience, what countries seem to have most interest in U.S. sailing product?
Canfield: For South Coast Yachts in San Diego, it is Pacific Rim countries and most commonly Australia, New Zealand, along with Mexico and Canada.
Waypoints: What are the biggest challenges to launch an international sales program?
Canfield: This is not my expertise or primary focus, but for the brokerage part of our business, the answer is clear: fast communication by email to establish the relationship. Building confidence in the buyer by email is a big challenge. If you can get a phone number, use it immediately. Using testimonials and credibility statements with the truth to back it up helps foreign buyers feel comfortable with you.
Waypoints: How do you market to and work with these prospective buyers?
Canfield: Most contact is by email. Make your email most professional with a signature and photo. Don’t discredit……. take them seriously. Quick and thorough follow up is critical. Also, establish a relationship of being “your contact for……” Another tip is to build and protect Trust (be consistent). You also must understand freight logistics and have shipping contacts. You should have contacts with captains and understand cost of sea delivery. Be sure to watch the currency changes. Best of all - more deals will follow if you take care of them the first time!
Waypoints: In your presentation, you pointed out some very key targeted profile groups that are MIA (missing in action). Please identify these groups and why they are important to the sailing industry.
Canfield: I mentioned these folks earlier and they are the younger singles or married with young children (in strollers). These people are the future of our business. Throughout 2008 and 2009 they were very few and far between, but in 2010 they began to reappear. The volume of customers who inquired about financing returned in 2010 at the same rate. This is a very good sign. I ended this part of my presentation in Annapolis with a picture of a young couple in their late 20’s who financed a Beneteau 32 in June and they were expecting their second child. I was so excited to deliver their boat to them and they’ve already inquired about a larger boat. Getting younger people out on the water and hooked on boating should be a major part of our marketing campaigns.
Waypoints: How do you suggest the industry reach out to embrace and capture these targeted markets?
Canfield: I think it important to show how easy it is to manage, maintain, and afford an entry level boat. These folks need the most education on the new boating lifestyle that they are entering. They are ideal prospects for charter companies and sailing schools. As a new boat dealer, we support local charter companies in San Diego and look at them as “feeders” for our future business. I think the industry has done a very good job in the last year addressing this and we need to keep this focus on building opportunities for these new boaters to get out on the water. We all left the Sail America Industry Conference understanding the importance of this.
Waypoints: What are the primary stumbling blocks and barriers to reaching these demographics?
Canfield: Convincing them that spending money on a boat is a wise choice in this current economic situation. We have to appeal to their sensitivity about family values and help them to see the effect that boating has on a family. I don’t think there is a person in our industry that doesn’t have just one fond memory of a time aboard a boat at a young age that influenced them to choose working in this industry! The effect of being on the water is magical! I always tell parents who are boating (or considering buying a boat from us) that they are giving a wonderful gift to their children. We need to educate parents on the values learned by children who are introduced to boating. Responsibility, adventure, safety, teamwork, confidence, understanding and respecting nature, are just a few of the experiences that kids master on the water. All of us parents know that if our kids like it, we will enjoy it more. We all need to devote just a little time and marketing budget to selflessly getting people to try our products. The result will come in the future.
Here are some ideas on how to meet and keep in touch with these new boaters:
- Facebook! They are on it. You should be too! An easy way to let people know about your events and the cool vibe of your company. Keep ALL posts positive.
- Charter companies. Get involved with sponsoring or supplying boats to them. Share databases for promotions and events.
- Invitations to Events/ Sail days: create regular “try it out” days for people who have contacted your company. All publicity is good publicity!
- Lessons: offer FREE lessons.
- Stick with them. (manage your database)
- Encourage them. (creative financing?)
- They will eclipse the bottom feeders as the market turns back!
Waypoints: One final question. What lessons should Sail America members take from this topic ... and how should they actually apply it to their own businesses?
Canfield: I think the most important underlying lesson here is to remember WHY we are in this business. If it is simply making money, there are probably better ways. We are here because we love boats and love how the effect of being on the water has shaped our lives. We have the gift to share this experience through our marine products and services. We have the opportunity here to survive a very tough time and we are doing just that.
When times are tough, it is very difficult to even think joyous thoughts, but we have to fight to keep the joy in our business and fight to share that with everyone we meet. We are very fortunate to be in the boating business and things are slowly getting better. Give these gifts back to those who you meet and you will be successful. Share the joy of boats however you may be connected to them.
Wanda Kenton Smith is editor of Waypoints, president of Marine Marketers of America, national marketing columnist for Soundings Trade Only since 1997, and owner/president of Kenton Smith Marketing, www.kentonsmithmarketing.com For more information or to comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org