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Test rides present range of opinions, results

Jeff Hemmel, Contributing Writer
April 2, 2012
Filed under Features

Pre-qualifying the rider an important first step for many dealers

Nothing helps a dealer sell a PWC like a test ride, but the reality of today’s market is that many are sold without a customer ever getting a hull wet prior to closing the deal.

“It’s weird,” admits Steve Jenkins, owner of Jetsport in Huntington Station, N.Y. “It’s one of those products you don’t buy sight unseen, but often you do buy sight untried.”

The reasons are many. Proximity to the water is an obvious one, but in certain areas of the country so too is the price of the necessary liability insurance. And nationwide, even dealers who can test ride find they need to be pretty particular about pre-qualifying the consumer to find who is truly worth the cost and effort.

Price … and proximity
Simple, responsible economics. That’s the reason why many dealers in New York no longer offer test rides. In today’s litigious society, the necessary liability insurance has gotten prohibitively expensive for many.

“We don’t do test rides for one reason,” Jetsports’ Jenkins said. “and that’s basically because nobody can afford the liability insurance.” As Jenkins explains, the situation is the same for motorcycle dealers in his corner of the state. That leaves the dealership in the weird situation of not being able to let a customer try a craft in order to encourage them to plunk down their cash.

“I know in many areas of the country they do it. I’ve talked to dealers who sell a lot of boats, and being able to offer a test ride definitely helps close the deal, so I know it would be an asset. But bottom line, in trying to keep costs down, that’s one thing that had to go.”

Pat O’Flanagan, owner of Lake Minnetonka Motorsports in Minnesota, uses the proximity of the popular lake to take advantage of test rides.

Proximity to the water is another natural hurdle, particularly in a business where so many dealers started out selling motorcycles or snowmobiles. Waterfront property wasn’t a necessity then, and it is an expensive commodity now. Many are also just unreasonably far away from accessible water to make a test ride a regular occurrence.

According to Chad Adler, sales manager at C&C Sports in Brighton, Mich., that very fact already has many customers coming in the door never even expecting to get on the water. “To be honest with you, people don’t really expect to test ride them,” Adler said. “It might be different if we were right on the water, but it’s not really a common request.”

For those who do insist on a test ride, C&C is close enough to a lake to make it possible, but, like many other dealers, the dealership has to weigh the return on that investment. A test ride requires coordination to get a boat over to the launch ramp, arrange for the time of a salesman, or perhaps even a salesman and a porter, and make it all work in the consumer’s schedule. Many dealers will even go to the expense of bringing two vehicles to the water so that the salesperson can also go out and maintain some control over what the customer does with the boat and where they go on the water.

Says Adler: “It’s not easy.”

Virtual demo
So how do you sell a product the consumers can’t actually try for themselves … or decide who gets the golden ticket? Dealers suggest careful qualifying of the consumer, by both the sales staffer and the sales manager.

“You have to know your person pretty well and qualify them, and then really explain each vehicle as well as you can,” Jenkins said. “If they’re a family, you go toward family stuff; if it’s a single guy, it’s usually obvious which one he wants.”

Educated consumers also make the job easier. Many have read online reviews, ridden a friend’s similar boat, or perhaps rented a model on vacation. (Interestingly, rentals are one way in which some New York-area dealers are reportedly getting around the demo conundrum, although the option isn’t too realistic for all but the largest players.)

“Pretty much the customers are going to get what they’re looking for if they do their homework and the salesman has thoroughly qualified them,” Jenkins said. “I’m not going to take an 18-year-old kid and put him on the top performance machine just because he expressed an interest in test riding it. You need to qualify them. You’ve got to do your homework.”

One more avenue, although limited, is a manufacturer-sponsored demo tour. For the past several years, Sea-Doo has taken such a tour on the road, traveling from coast-to-coast and offering free opportunities for interested consumers to get on the product. Such a demo tour allows a dealer to be directly involved with interested consumers, but removes the burden of liability off the dealership’s shoulders.

Nothing like the real thing
All those efforts go a long way toward compensating for the lack of a test ride, but it’s important to note that nothing will likely ever replace the hands-on boost that a test ride provides for a potential sale.

“It really tells a customer if he likes the unit or not,” says Lake Minnetonka Motorsports owner Pat O’Flanagan, who is fortunate enough to be both very close to the water in Minnesota and have the affordable insurance that makes test rides possible. “It’s more of a benefit to the customer than it is to the dealership. You’re doing them some real justice putting the boat in the water.

“If something works right, and it’s the right unit for the people, they come back with a big smile on their face … and the money comes out of their pocket.”

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