It’s fairly indisputable that we can’t create a diving consumer until we at least get him or her into an entry-level training program. Let’s face it, golfers and tennis players don’t buy many wetsuits, regulators or dive computers.
The new market for diving instruction is a different breed of cat in many ways. Frequently, they are taking up the sport with the sole intention of participating only when they vacation in a resort area. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone; the skiing industry has marketed themselves successfully in much the same way for decades. Diving has become a mainstream recreational pursuit for the masses, and it must compete with the other sporting interests of consumers who may also participate in boating, tennis, cycling, camping, skiing, etc.
The savvy dive store owner will recognize that his true competitor is the other active sports available to people, and learn to market diving instruction just like any other product in a competitive arena. Sell the fun elements, the adventure, the romance. And make it fit the consumers’ schedule, not the instructor’s. We have to successfully service the busy executive, the harried medical professional, the gonzo lawyer who nails 70-plus billable hours per week, the flight attendant who takes her classroom session in New Jersey but does the ocean dives while on layover in Bonaire or St. Thomas, as well as Joe Six-Pack who may be pulling double shifts to get by. The innovative training retailer will somehow provide a program for each individual.
And herein lies a fundamental flaw in our approach to selling diving: using training as a loss leader to hopefully attract merchandise sales. At a time when retailers are facing serious threats to their role as the primary suppliers of dive equipment from traditional mail-order competition and the burgeoning specter of “virtual dive stores” on the Internet, the protection of retail price margins is a central concern to all involved.
While I don’t have all the answers for the store owner confronted by his customer waving discount price quotes in his face and demanding parity or losing the sale, I can tell you that the one product that no one can take away from him is training. Why is it that, as retailers, we would rather eat razor blades than discount a snorkel, but think nothing of selling a 40-hour dive certification course for $59.95?
Training should be a profit center, not a loss leader. There, I said it when no one else wanted to. The Internet and mail order can’t teach a student to clear his mask, master buoyancy control or experience the unique thrill of simply breathing underwater for the first time. So why do we give this valuable service away for practically nothing? The answer, as so often is the case, is “because we always did it this way”.
That’s bad business. And it’s only going to get worse unless we wake up and charge what our professional services are worth. Because it is getting harder to manage price margins on gear in a rapidly changing retail environment that offers so many options to the savvy consumer. That’s reality and it’s not pretty. Where did you buy your last camera or television? At your local “mom & pop” storefront or at Best Buy, Wal-Mart or the Internet? The truth hurts.
Consumers pay hundreds of dollars to perfect their back swings and to improve their parallel turns. They will pay a fair price for dive training, too. If you consider the resources tied up in a typical certification program, we should charge about $500 a pop. But it will take a fundamental paradigm shift within the industry to eliminate the misconception that training is a giveaway to compete with the store down the block.
Embrace the concept of aggressively incorporating kids at the earliest age into junior-certification programs as a family unit. Sell the sizzle of dive travel simultaneously, and use the tropical resorts as your ally to complete openwater requirements in clear, warm water that invites continued participation in a sport notorious for its dropout rate.
When it comes to the customer who is just starting to consider diving, retailers control the keys to the kingdom. Service him and his family well during the training phase, and you have a fighting chance to get the majority of his retail purchases…especially if you have given yourself some wiggle room on price competition by making a fair margin already on his c-card.
You can take that to the bank.