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Tidal Shift

Exploring the emergence of the online marine marketplace.

April 13, 2012
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To me, the biggest advantage a brick-and-mortar marine store holds over an online retailer is instant gratification. That’s important when you’re in the middle of a weekend boat project.

Need a part? Drive to the store, inspect the item, make the purchase and continue working. Or at least that’s how it used to be. Lately, it seems that brick-and-mortars have adopted an online mentality, perhaps believing that if you can’t beat online stores, make customers wait.

Recently, while embroiled in a project, I discovered that a longer NMEA 2000 cable was required for some electronic networking. So off I went, but the store did not have any cables. They referred me to a specialty shop, but it was bereft of cables too.

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Both stores offered to order me a cable. I responded (politely, I think) that I could do that…ONLINE.

OK, expecting stores to stock specialty items is, well, expecting too much. But NMEA 2000 cables are not exactly specialty items. These, along with T-connectors and terminators, represent the vertebrae and nerves of an NMEA 2000 backbone.Both stores carry NMEA 2000-compatible electronics, so why wouldn’t they also carry the parts to network these?

Dejected, I drove home without my cable, and started to wonder about the future of brick-and-mortar stores. Increasingly, I have been ordering boat parts online, and I’m not exactly an early adopter. Other boaters migrated to the Internet way ahead of me.

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Perhaps this is why brick-and-mortars are hesitant to heavy-up on inventory. They figure most customers also buy online, so why break the bank trying to carry everything under the sun. Instead, they pare back to the most popular products, and offer to order the rest.

It’s a vicious cycle. As in-store selection dwindles, consumer frustration grows and visits decrease, triggering the slow-motion collapse of brick-and-mortar retailers as we know them.

A new breed of marine store is emerging. It’s online, fully stocked and service oriented. I have done business with a few. On the marine electronics side, The GPS Store is a prime example. It shines in terms of product selection, but also offers an element traditionally associated with brick-and-mortar specialty shops – technical expertise and advice.

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“You can call us weekdays between 9 am to 5 pm Eastern time, and we can answer just about any technical question you might have,” said Jamie Reme, sales director for The GPS Store.”

Boaters can also e-mail the store’s Help Center with questions, and a response is promised within 60 minutes during business hours, even if you’re not buying anything. I tried it, and got an answer in five minutes. Impressive.

“Our staff is very knowledgeable, because we all touch everything we sell,” Reme says. “All are trained by the manufacturers, and use the products on our company boat, a 31-foot Contender.” Employee turnover is very low, mostly because it is a fun place to work, according to Reme. “It’s like a Toys ‘R Us for adults,” he says.

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In the end, I bought my cable through The GPS Store, which had stock available for immediate shipment. I opted for UPS Ground, which meant waiting five days for delivery, but I didn’t have to drive back to the store to pick it up.

As I wrapped things up, I began think about my next boat project. In times past, I would have gone to a marine store to look for ideas, but now I go online. I am not alone. The retail tide has shifted, and it will someday leave brick-and-mortar stores high and dry.

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