Buyers' Guide to Outboard Boats

Buyers' Guide to Outboard Boats

Delicated for Offshore Boats

by David Pascoe
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If the boat building industry suffers from serious problems, it naturally follows that their dealerships end up suffering the same slings and arrows of misfortune.

Owning an auto dealership can be like owning the keys to a gold mine. That is decidedly not true for boat dealerships since the nature of the product is so different.

Boat builders and their markets are simply not large enough to support the kind of dealership networks and profitability that would result in dealership stability.

Plus, as you already know, auto sales are the largest and longest running major league scam in the world. With their power, they can manipulate prices in ways that other industries only dream of.

If anyone else engaged in these practices, they’d go to prison for fraud, collusion and antitrust violations. The boat building industry has no such political/economic power, and therefore cannot manipulate prices and sales practices to ensure their survival.

The history of boat dealerships is that they come and go rather like the seasons. Very few have shown any staying power, and those that do seem to change their product lines like they change their socks.

That’s because manufacturers (both boat and motor) are not very kind to their dealers; they do not instill dealer loyalty, and lacking that loyalty (or other economic motivation) dealers feel free to change whenever a better deal comes along.

Dealerships suffer from the same economic vulnerabilities as builders do, plus one more; in most parts of the nation it is a seasonal business.

This factor alone results in a large reason for customer dissatisfaction. With a large part of the business rush coming in just a few months, it is impossible to meet demand and keep all customers happy.

It’s also hard to attract and keep skilled personnel, from salesmen to engine mechanics. Highly trained people are rarely available for part-time or seasonal jobs.

When you look around at dealerships, you’ll probably find that the ones that have been around longest are those that operate marinas where their revenues are not completely dependent on sales and service.

To be successful, and survive economic slow downs, a dealer has to have a revenue source other than sales and service. Dockage, storage and other services usually help them turn the trick, particularly when the water is frozen a good part of the year.

National vs. Regional Builders

It takes a lot of resources and a company has to be of a certain size before it can aspire to achieve a national sales network.

There are, however, numerous builders who neither have the size nor the aspiration to become national. That is why there are a fairly large number of builders who have only a regional market.

These are often builders that do not have dealerships, and who sell direct. As a general rule, their products and services tend to be a cut above the rest.

But, like all general rules, they are made to be broken. The downside to builder direct sales comes from logistics problems that arise in the event that warranty work becomes necessary. The boat has to go back to the builder to get fixed.

Buying Philosophy

The philosophy of always shopping for the lowest price may be without risks for many other kinds of products, but it is very risky when applied to boats.

In fact, it is downright imprudent. When it comes to boats, lowest price means de facto lowest quality. If you would buy the lowest quality boat, you might as well buy the lowest price air plane and seek out the lowest priced doctors and surgeons.

There are some things for which it is not wise to make selections based on lowest price, and boats are surely one of them.

As we discussed earlier, boats are so expensive because they require high quality materials to be durable. To reduce price, a builder has to reduce the cost of materials. The end result is usually a product that looks good in the showroom, but begins deteriorating rapidly once it is in the water.

On Quality and Reliability

There came a time when the boat building industry stopped building just “boats” and began creating “consumer products.”

There was also a time, not too long ago, when most boat builders were in the business for the love of boats. A time when making money did not reign supreme.

Those days are largely gone, and most of boat building is corporate business, though there exists a fringe market of custom boats and high quality boat builders.

Though the prices on their products are often stunning, they provide a good price contrast between high quality boats and the consumer market quality boats.

The term “consumer products” translates to mean boats were no longer designed and built to serve the functions that boats heretofore normally served.

Instead, marketing designers and strategists were hired to help increase sales, the kind of people who perform psychological studies to learn what will most attract people to a product.

Along with a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage, their goal was to put a boat in every garage and dock. It didn’t matter whether it was a fat chicken or an emaciated, starving bag-of-bones chicken, so long as it was a chicken.

If the chicken was emaciated, never mind, the nice coat of feathers would hide the fact that there was no meat on those bones.

The new design philosophy was sex appeal and status symbols. Not to worry whether a boat is a practical vessel designed to navigate the waters with; what the consumer wants is a status symbol and fashion statement; the practicality of a boat is deemed irrelevant to getting them sold in large numbers.

The marketing types know that if you can create a style trend, the style will perpetuate itself because people are like sheep in that they want what everybody else has as long as it is the latest fashion.

So if stylish, sexy looking boats that are utterly impractical become the norm, then that is what people will buy. Vanity became the name of the game.

This could never happen unless boating could be turned into a mass recreation, and so the industry set about doing just that.

Somewhere in the mid 1980’s they succeeded and the number of boats in existence reached 22 million by 1990, a high water mark that has since receded to around 19 million and continues to drop.

Part of the problem can be laid at the feet of boat buyers themselves. Far too may people have been willing to spend very large amounts of money without an adequate understanding of what they’re buying.

No doubt they do so, in part, due to high levels of consumer trust in most other products, which can be badly misplaced when buying a boat.

Today, the industry and its leading association, the National Association of Marine Manufacturers, is deeply worried that too many first-time boat buyers are last-time boat buyers.

Boat owner surveys show that customer satisfaction rates are poor and going lower. Dealer service satisfaction rates are even worse.

Yet another part of the problem with high cost stems from increased complexity and sophistication of the product, combined with increased luxury and equipment that is no longer optional but standard.

When the buying public demands all the bells and whistles, all the luxury and pizzazz combined with a myriad of electronics, and all at an affordable price too, the net effect is to drive quality and reliability down as the builders struggle to keep prices down.

So why can’t we have our cake and eat it too? Let me lay it out in fast format here.

• Boaters want “reasonable cost,” luxury and every amenity imaginable. There’s no way you can have a reasonably priced boat plus good quality plus all the bells and whistles unless you are well-heeled. Something has to give, and that something will always be quality.

• Largest Interior Spaces. The shape that would provide the maximum interior space that so many people demand would be a square or rectangle, though I trust you understand why square boats might be a problem.

To yield best performance, a boat hull has to have a certain shape. That shape is not conducive to achieving floating patios and parlors. Hence, the majority of boats perform poorly even under moderate conditions.

• Boaters want fuel economy. The type of hull design that is most fuel efficient is also the one that is least sea worthy.

Flat bottom boats will go fastest with the least horsepower and lowest fuel consumption. This also yields a ride that’s like driving a car on a rail road track.

• Boaters want low maintenance. Low maintenance is achieved by using highest quality materials with a minimum of complexity. That flies in the face of low cost fanciness and luxury.

In other words, what most boat buyers really want is a contradiction in terms, but that doesn’t have any bearing on wanting it.

However, if you understand this, you’re now better equipped to make some intelligent choices. Invariably, this will mean giving up some luxury and extras in favor of quality.

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