Some in the marine industry were not surprised at the pent up demand for boats resulting from the pandemic lockdowns in many parts of the country in 2020. What seemed harder to grasp was the proportion of women in the surge toward boat ownership. Women today hold about half of all managerial and professional positions in the United States and 41% of the employees with authority to make purchasing decisions are women. As college classes became more and more lopsided in the last twenty years with more females than males, you could see this coming.
For more than twenty years as the boating industry became more aware of women’s financial independence and increased interest in running their own boats, Sea Ray Boats and MarineMax saw the opportunity and promoted initiatives to help women get into boating. Nearly three-quarters of their online inquiries are from first time buyers, many of whom have been women.
In recognition of the vast potential of women as customers, MarineMax has been offering small classes just for women boaters given by Coast Guard licensed captains. Women learn knot tying, navigation, safety and emergency procedures, terminology, rules of the road and classes are split up between inside classroom time and hands-on time in a boat learning to handle lines, anchor, dock and operate a VHF radio. Designed to build piloting skills and develop confidence, the classes do that and more – they foster camaraderie and put the women in a comfort zone on a boat.
In 2010 they had Suze Orman come to the Miami International Boat Show to speak about women and boating, sign copies of her book, “Women & Money,” and take delivery of her new Sea Ray. As women pick up boating skills they are more at ease directing some of their income to boating expenses. The National Marine Manufacturers Association statistics recently noted that 95% of the registered and documented boats in the U.S. measured less than 26 feet and 62% of boat owners have household incomes of under $100,000.
Women are often first-time buyers. They don’t always know what brand, style or size boat would meet their needs and for these reasons, they often start their shopping online and then talk to a salesman at a boat dealership. Women expect some help in the selection process and a little guidance on what to expect in maintenance and other future costs. They may need to find out about towing a boat, whether their vehicle would be capable of trailering the boat they have in mind. The salesman can tell a prospective customer the advantages and disadvantages of trailering a boat and probably some really funny jokes about trailering boats. The salesman listens to questions and provides answers and more about storage and insurance.
When so much information is available online, a boat salesperson needs to think of the person sitting across the desk as a “gift.” The salesperson can easily become the “go to person,” the expert in the customer’s life, the person she calls to answer questions and clarify issues they’ve gone over. Although it might seem easier to have a male customer who already knows a lot of what most women still have to learn, women buy differently than men do. Men are mission and task oriented, according to the Harvard Business Review and women are discovery oriented and would be willing to adjust their buying goals as more information becomes available to them.
A man looking at the same boat as a woman sees a vehicle that will take him to the fishing grounds with minimal extras in the way of landing the fish into the boat. His wife, looking at the same boat, notices there is no head. She sees there is no table or space for a table where they can eat lunch, no bimini top or a decent ladder the kids can climb back into the boat on after a swim.
A woman hoping to work with a top-tier salesman could expect the salesperson to try to establish a relationship with her where he is seen as a consultant, where if he doesn’t know the answer to a question she has, he finds out. He will weigh her needs and her financial ability with the boats he has available and those coming in. She’ll find this type of person by looking at the testimonials previous customers have written online. The words “felt comfortable and/or welcome” often appear about the relationship with the salesperson.
Boat clubs have introduced women to classes and different types of boats through boat sharing. Boat clubs and sharing became more popular during the economic downturn in 2008 when people lost jobs but were able to keep their boats by getting paid for other people using their boats while the club took over the cost of insurance and sometimes dockage. The marine industry no longer worries that boat clubs are taking away from new boat sales. It has become a positive experience for people who need to be out on the water to get the urge to buy a boat. A boat club gives them that trial experience. The CEO of the Freedom Boat Club loses about 20% of his business every year to people leaving the Club to buy their own boats.
Robin and her sister, Emma, were teachers who kept their boat across the dock from ours at a Long Island marina on the south shore. They loved cruising, fishing and trips to Jones Beach where their father rafted up with friends for the weekend at Zach’s Bay when they were growing up. They married, had children and the marriages didn’t work out. Their interest in boating perked up again as they saw their children missing what they had as children. They decided they could manage the costs and the time involved if they went in on a boat together. They went to two dealers after deciding on the brand they wanted. At the second dealer, the salesman gave them a warm welcome, offered them coffee, answered all their questions and discussed what would be good for them because they had small children and within a week they came back with a deposit. They recommended the salesman to friends because they said he made them feel as if they belonged there and were doing something good for their families.
They mentioned the first dealer where, when they walked in there were no customers but the three salesmen stood in the back, together, watching them walk in, and when they got closer, one said to them, “And what are you ladies doing here when you could be out in the sun?” That gave them a very negative feeling about the dealership and they left without talking to anyone.
When Marge went to look at a boat she brought her brother along in case she forgot to ask about something important. She had heard that salesmen really weren’t looking for women as customers. She explained to the salesman what she was looking for and when he answered her questions the salesman directed his answers to her brother. She sent her brother home and at the next dealership found a good salesperson who eventually sold her a new boat.
Suze Orman no longer has her Sea Ray. Used to chartering big boats for family vacations, she bought a bigger, more expensive boat, an Azimut. After running the numbers, what she was spending on upkeep for the Azimut, decided to sell it and all her real estate, build a mansion on a private island in the Caribbean and spend her time fishing, buying a 32 foot Boston Whaler. She has gone back to chartering for the big family vacations.
Things are better for women buying boats now than they used to be. The Buyers’ Guide for Boating Magazine has a cover with a girl driving the boat. Inside there are four or five other pictures of girls driving boats but there are also 39 pictures with men at the wheel. The industry as a whole can be proud of how well they have responded to the new customers’ needs.