Today I had a routine check of my kayaking bookmarks to see what changes had been made to NSW kayaking retailers. Unsurprisingly, only one has had a recent update. Expedition Kayaks. Now, this post is not a plug for EK because I’ve bought stuff from the other retailers and in fact more so but I want to use the EK approach to retailing as an imperfect model of how clever retailers can shift the market to their advantage, cheaply and easily. I say imperfectly because the EK site is certainly not perfect but it does have the vital ingredients in place that make it work.
I’m guessing here but I think Expedition Kayaks didn’t exist 2 years ago and all its competitors have been around for 5 years or longer. Some much longer. Now, EK doesn’t carry a huge range of anything and the online shop has only a handful of SKUs to show. I don’t think they even have a shopfront unlike competitors. However, none of this is all that important. Firstly, EK is catering for ‘serious’ kayakers and ‘serious’ kayakers will do their research first before buying. They will also have a good idea of brands they would like to have access to. The EK team have managed to do this well. Firstly, they offer an important alternative to Mirage dominance with Impex, Valley, NDK and now North Shore Kayaks. This gives the advanced paddler access to famous boats they read about overseas. Also, EK now do Reed Chillcheater. A very high cred product formerly only available from the UK. The Mitchell Blades paddles are an alternative to Lendal and Werner and with the addition of a Greenland paddle make them the only place to get elite gear.
Up until recently, the natural progression of a beginner sea kayaker was a plastic boat like a Prijon, Penguin or Perception then you movied into a Mirage. Your basic paddle was upgunned to a Werner or Lendal wing and your pfd was upgraded to Kokatat if it wasn’t before. There’s nothing wrong with any of this and I certainly don’t want to give the impression I’m disparaging these fine brands but it’s all pretty samey to me. The NSW club was and still is dominated by the Mirage 580 and 530 boats. At my Grade 2 training, I was the only non-Mirage paddler. However, things are starting to change and rapidly. The Valley boats are starting to make inroads into the club fleet as are Impex. I’m not sure of the penetration rate but it would be very interesting to get some stats to measure this. The question is ‘why’.
I believe it has all to do with the presence of Expedition Kayaks. Mark, Rob and Sharon are key NSW club members and instructors with their impact being in Sydney, the heartland of the club. Unlike all their competitors, the EK site has a blog which is frequently updated with new material and boat reviews. Without a shopfront, prospects are encouraged to take boats for extended periods for trialling. Mark urged me to take an Assateague home for a few weeks and even to pay it off! Unfortunately, at the time, an impractical temptation. Since the EK team are committed to their products and make it easy for prospects to be regularly informed about them the progression into sales is seamless.
Blogging is so important for this sort of retail because regular readers have the brand foremost in mind. I hit the EK site every three days. I hit the others maybe two or three times a year because I know there’s never anything on there that’s different. I also know Mark reads and contributes to my site. As a result my next boat will be an Impex or Valley. I will certainly buy a Greenland paddle from him and I regularly look at the on-line shop. Only poverty stops me buying at the moment.
The playing field can be changed very quickly with the insertion of new ideas that are well disseminated. Particularly if there’s authority behind it. I have posted about the advantages of plastic boats and received very mixed responses. Most thought plastic was for beginners and you should go to composite as fast as you can. Then Rob Mercer starts paddling a plastic Valley and raved about it. All of a sudden plastic is a valid option. Not only did Rob paddle one publicly but blogged about it. He’s in a composite Valley now but the credibilty he bestowed on plastic lingers on. Mark seems to paddle anything that floats but his blogging has broken the back of Mirage dominance and I know many paddlers looking for alternative rides even if they’re not one of EKs stock.
Another example of how blogging and on-line presence can have an impact is the Sea Leopard boats. A famous old boat, particularly among Victorians and Tasmanians, though little known in NSW, there has been heightened interest in the Sea Leopard II due in large measure to the on-line effort and excellent pre-sales support. A Sea Leopard II will soon appear in the Hunter Kayak Klan I’m told. This example is interesting because the Sea Leopard web-site is WOEFUL using Microsoft Spaces. It is a dreadful medium and visually messy but the key elements are there to make it vastly superior to hard-coded HTML sites like Mirage and Pittarak which never add anything of interest EVER.
Similar to the EK site is the Jervis Bay Kayaks site which is very good. I’m not sure how much influence they have because they are quite far south of the NSW club demographic. They seem to have strong community involvement and are much more gerneral in range than EK. Ross Boardman and his team are also the centre of surf kayaking in NSW. Lamentable because Newcastle has much better surfing beaches than those guys and there are NO surf kayaks here. A good opportunity for an enterprising retailer…hmmm.
As a professional retailer and sales trainer, I am very concerned at the lack of marketing and retail acumen in our sport. The lessons to be learned from Expedition Kayaks should be readily absorbed and practiced, particularly by those with shopfronts. The cost of setting up good sites is minimal and the gain potentially huge. It could easily make the difference between survival and extinction. Newcastle has lost it’s last kayak specialist due to unforgivable failure in customer service. It doesn’t take much to become irrelevant and it only takes initiative to turn the situation around. It’s not enough to put some boats in a shop and bung on a set-and-forget website. It would be a shame to lose more retailers. Buying stuff is a big part of our sport.
In short, the elements that make the EK site effective are:
1. Easy Navigation. It’s clearly laid out and things are well marked and intuitive.
2. Easy shopping cart.
3. The blog is regularly updated creating interest and a reason to keep coming back.
4. Products are reviewed and a back story is often provided giving readers context.
5. Prices are listed. Competitors who don’t do this are bloody stupid. It’s a fundamental of retail. Axiomatic even.
6. Mark reads and contributes to other sites making linkbacks and inviting comments that add to content.
Jervis Bay Kayaks fit this standard (they don’t read me though) and Rafta are on the way. No-one else is close.