West Marine floats its plan for a service bay
The boating supply chain is testing a store that will install what it sells. It opens in Clearwater today.
Recreational boaters may be an adventurous lot. But when it comes to do-it-yourself projects, the wind
quickly blows out of their sails
"Research shows boaters' biggest fear is drilling a hole in their boat," said J.P. Giovanni, vice president of service
for West Marine
Inc. "We hear a strong message from customers: "If I buy this, how do I get it installed?' "
That's the light bulb idea behind the nation's largest boating
supply retailer's first experiment
with drive-in installation
and service. The Watsonville, Calif.-based chain remodeled an abandoned Pep Boys auto service store at 1721 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd., Clearwater, FL. It officially opens to the public today.
Inside they put a boat supply store three times bigger than the largest of the chain's 14 stores in the Tampa Bay area. In the service bays, technicians install virtually everything West Marine sells, plus maintenance
and some repair work on boats, motors and trailers.
They aim to make buying
as easy as getting a car radio
at Circuit City.
West Marine needs an invigorating jolt. Sales in stores open more than year, a sign of a retailer's staying power with its customers, declined for the past two years. The company's stock hit a 52-week low after the company last month reported a 71 percent drop in net income
and lowered its earnings forecast
for the year.
Indeed, the company has been fighting the tide: soaring gas prices, an unsteady economy and a relentless string of hurricanes that ripped through the Southeast and the Gulf Coast's multitude of marinas
. Boat sales in Florida
were hammered again by the recent Hurricane
Wilma. Sales at the recent Fort Lauderdale Boat Show
, a nationally watched barometer for the winter, were reportedly tepid.
"There has been a significant cutback in people's interest in boating, because they are reluctant to spend on recreation when there's a constant barrage of human tragedy and suffering," said Peter Harris, West Marine's president and chief executive officer. "But boaters historically have a real passion. They will come back. The insurance
checks are coming."
For three years West Marine has been dispatching technicians to install many of the flashy new electronics
at $75 to $90 a hour. Often it's a wait measured in days. Adding the same service at a store along with other routine maintenance
jobs is supposed help bring down service fees
It also gives West Marine a leg up to a big market. About 88 percent of the 7.5-million power boats longer than 14 feet in the United States are trailered. West Marine put the store in the Tampa Bay area because, with 107,000 power boats, 17,000 personal watercraft and 5,000 sailboats, it is the nation's sixth-largest boat market, according to InfoLink, a Miami-based research
"It's a huge opportunity," said Barry Kelley, the company's vice president for the southeast.
As West Marine's CEO, Harris was named 10 months ago to revive the chain's fortunes. One-time president of the San Francisco
49ers, an electronic gamemaker and the FAO Schwarz toy store chain, Harris has two new prototype stores on the drawing boards.
The company won't discuss them. But many ideas launched this week in Clearwater are being tested for inclusion.
While the core
power boating crowd here is older than 50, trailered-boat enthusiasts are younger, slightly less affluent and feel strapped for time, according to West Marine research
. Meanwhile, boating stores have not advanced much beyond the basics: aisle after aisle of fasteners, blocks, motor parts
and uncut rope
West Marine's new look borrows heavily from Best Buy, Circuit City and Home Depot, the home improvement pioneer for the ham-handed amateur. It includes:
Flashy hands-on demonstrator boards that let shoppers try out and compare high-tech products. One stereo display lets customers try different amplifiers with different speakers.
The store is laden with graphics explaining new tech products. The GPS
options range from a cellphone-sized $139 model to a $2,900 rig packed with radar
forecasts, fish-finder, ship-to-shore radio
and a DVD
player with a 15-inch display screen
A kids' play area in a nautical theme and lots of Legos. A lounge outfitted with a variety of cushy captain's chairs sits near an open computer terminal that offers free use to people along for the shopping
A variety of boating-related merchandise ranging from two aisles of fishing equipment
(culled from a list of product advice from local fishing
guide Richard Howard) to marine cookware and magnetic boards for chess, Yahtzee or Scrabble.