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Women are changing the boat sales landscape

As far back as I can remember, we’ve always acknowledged women could play a make-it-or-break-it role in closing any boat sale. Our reference, of course, was to the boat’s design, comforts, safety features, amenities and the way we treated them during the sales process.

All those remain important today. But, now we must add to the list the major economic influence of women on the possible sale. It’s not the same old landscape any more.

In general, I think most of us know there have been an increasing number of women in the workforce. What I admit I didn’t realize, until now, is that there’s been a major shift quietly taking place in this country. While in the 1970s women made up just 38 percent of the nation’s workforce, the years since have seen women holding down 50 percent of all jobs. Moreover, it’s predicted with certainty that women will be the majority in the workforce in the coming decade. Here’s why:

The New York Times reported more than 80 percent of the jobs lost in the current recession were held by men, notably jobs in manufacturing and construction. Many of those jobs will not likely return in the near term, many never. On the other hand, jobs in fields like education, health care, and various service industries primarily held by women didn’t face such drastic cuts. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the current unemployment rate for women is 8.6 percent, compared with 11.2 percent for men. Women now hold two-thirds of the jobs in 10 out of the 15 fastest-growing fields.

It’s all been dubbed one of the most profound revolutions in the last half-century, according to, “Female Power” published in The Economist. In the same time frame, the “glass ceiling” holding women out of top corporate positions has been shattered. Add to that, more women than ever are becoming entrepreneurs – starting up their own businesses. In fact, since 2000, the number of companies founded by women has been double that of men. Here’s more:

There are now 3 million more women in college than men. And, while 40 percent of college women were education majors in the 1960s, now that’s just 12 percent. Conversely, 40 percent of college women today are studying business, up from just 2 percent in the ‘60s!

Here’s a very big factor: A Pew Research Center study on the increased level of income and education for women in today’s marriages (Web site: found that wives now earn more than their husbands in 20 percent of marriages. That was just 4 percent 40 years ago. Moreover, according to “The State of the American Woman,” published in Time magazine, 90 percent of men said they didn’t mind women earning more than they did and, more broadly, 75 percent of all respondents were accepting of the new place for women in society.

Actually, I don’t think this recession has much to do with it. These demographic changes were already well underway some time ago. We may or may not have noticed. However, this does confirm one of the “new normals” we must deal with in selling our boats is that women are no longer a secondary consideration in the sales process. Rather, they may, in fact, be the primary buyer. Indeed, today’s women have changed the sales process.?


17 comments on “Women are changing the boat sales landscape

  1. John Wisse

    In February it was reported that according to seasonally unadjusted data released by the Labor Department, women held the majority of nonfarm payroll jobs in January, 2010. They also did so during February, March, November and December of last year, but the shift emerged only when the Labor Department announced earlier that it had revised its 2009 data. Women’s slender lead was highest in January of this year when they held 50.3 percent of the nation’s nonfarm payroll jobs in the raw numbers.

    More importantly though Norm, is that a good follow-up column may be to discuss briefly the relevance of all these statistics you mention. In one regard, among many others, the Marine Marketers of America ( has recognized there is a growing demand by women to learn how to safely operate a powerboat and/or sailboat with confidence in a positive and professional learning environment. The Association’s newly delevoped program – Boating Education Safety Training Course (B.E.S.T.) – Just For Women was developed as a pro bono pilot project by the Marine Marketers of America and now can be downloaded from our web page and utilized by anyone at no cost. Ours is a unique program in that it is designed to encourage local marine dealers to forge community partnerships to provide an approved course of basic boating safety instruction coupled with practical on-land (trailering) and on-water (boating operation) instruction by certified instructors. We believe that some marine dealers can elect to modify their business plan to establish an improved value-added customer experience and to achieve a means of attracting new potential customers by utilizing this free B.E.S.T. – Just For Women program.

  2. Wanda Kenton Smith

    Hi Norm, I have been beating this drum since the late 80s and every few years write a column or do an interview or participate in a panel discussion about the buying power and clout that women wield in many markets. I, too, have shared statistics and they continue to grow in significance. Too often my message felt on deaf ears, or people just didn’t get it and failed to respond accordingly. I’ve interviewed hundreds of women boaters about their boat buying experiences and as you know, have trained well over a thousand folks in our industry from various segments on this topic. We’ve gotten better, but there is much more we can and should do to embrace women as bona fide buyers and significant influencers on the purchase of everything from boats to in my case, motorcycles and cars! The stereotypes of the past are long gone. My hats are off to savvy marine companies who recognize the opportunities associated with the women’s market and have responded accordingly with targeted training and education courses, some marketing and special events. Just look at what my pals at Harley-Davidson have done to bring women into the forefront of their marketing activities, and the resulting gain in women’s ownership that has resulted. Marine Marketers of America has just launched a great B.E.S.T. program with free materials available to the industry. Thanks for once again striking on a very hot and relevant topic. It’s nice for once to see a guy take a stand and support what I’ve been preaching about for more than 20 years!

  3. Bill Kearns

    This “drum” has been beaten to death. The “Women in Boating” program a few years back was a complete failure. It seems to be nothing more than an attempt to appease the women that accompany men who purchase boats. I am by no means a chauvinist, I am a realist. I have sold hundreds of boats and maybe, five,were to women. The market is male driven and always will be. With all due respect to WKS above, if she has been banging this drum for twenty years and it has fallen on deaf ears, maybe it is time to give it up.

  4. Sunny

    Mr. Kearns,
    With all due respect Mr. Kearns, you have no idea how much $$ you are missing out on. Approx. 10 years ago I made a trip alone to an Orlando mfg event with $200,000++ to pick up a new boat line. My male partner could not attend. I initiated most of the inquires with the mfgs. I can still remember standing inside the display area for over 10 minutes of my top prospect before I initiated the conversation once again. This group was not busy as 4 or so guys were huddled up in self conversation. Needless to say, I didn’t spend a penny. Loss of opportunity is not limited to the boating industry as I was in Lowe’s last nite very close to quiting time & I experienced the blinders again. I tend to be more observant of customer service in general since that’s how I make a living.
    Wanda, this subject will continue to be discussed but those that GET IT will definitely benefit with fatter wallets. Thoughts from a GAL with plenty of $$ & 20+ years selling boats.

  5. Wanda Kenton Smith

    amen, Sunny! I have personally made the buying decision and negotiated the purchase of multiple boats, the last five cars/SUVs in my household and two motorcycles over the past 10 years. I’ve worked with some very forward-thinking sales professionals as well as walked away from others who failed to respect my capability or give me the time of day. Bill can certainly choose to discount women and thereby ignore the significant financial impact and opportunity that others in multiple industries are capitalizing on, including a handful of smart marine businesses who GET IT. Whether buying in a couples scenario or buying solo, never underestimate the power of a woman on a mission. Choose to ignore her at your own peril. We’ll find someone to help us when we’re ready to buy … if we don’t get so turned off that we go find another industry that welcomes us with open arms.

  6. Joe Lewis

    We’ve run a very successful “Women on the Water” program for a number of years. As a matter of fact we have another class scheduled for this Saturday with six ladies ready to learn more about boats and boating. I know of three boats we’ve sold over the last two years that were a direct result of women taking our class, getting more comfortable about boating then dragging their significant others in to buy a boat.
    Three boats are not that big of a deal. More ladies using their boats and getting their families and friends on the water for a good time, now that’s got some value. All of our past W.O.W. alumni (over 100 and counting) telling their friends, neighbors, co-workers, In-laws, Out-laws and social net working buddies about how well they were treated at Mount Dora Boating Center…..Priceless!
    I’m good with folks that believe boating is a guy thing and women play no role in the buying decisions…….more business for us!

  7. Eric Macklin

    Dear Mr. Kearns

    Very surprising comments from a self proclaimed “non-chauvinist”! It would appear you feel that any efforts directed at developing sales messaging or boating education aimed at women is a complete waste of time? Surely, you meant to convey that perhaps it just hasn’t YET been done well enough or broadly enough to have a measurable effect in your business? As a salesperson do you take the prospect’s first “no” as an excuse to abandon all efforts to close the deal? Having sold hundreds of boats, I highly doubt it! Do you believe the fruit of persistence and perseverence is reserved only for efforts directed towards male clients? Sounds a little chauvanistic to me! Good on Norm for bringing attention to the topic and also for the efforts of those like John, Wanda and others who expend their talents and energy addressing an opportunity that could benefit us all.

  8. Bentley Collins

    Hey, folks like Bill don’t get and never will. That many more clients for us to sell boats to. Sure there are women who accompany men in their decision making process but don’t ever underestimate the value of a partners acceptance or his/her decision either. We always sell to both and always address women as equals when working a show.

  9. Van Snider

    More and more marine retailers are adjusting their marketing and sales efforts recognizing the importance women play in the purchase decision and in income generation. Unfortunately, there are still a portion of salesmen who assume the “man” knows more about boating than the wife does. I see it during boat shows. A number of hears ago the Michigan Boating Industries Association, during a pre-boat show training session for exhibitors, had a female executive from Ford Motor Company speak to attendees on the effort Ford had placed in educating auto dealers of the influence women have in the purchasing of autos and how Ford designers were also considering the female perspective in designong their vehicles. For me, it is a simple thing. There isn’t any major purchase I don’t make without my wife’s approval. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. My advise, dont’ ignore the women.

  10. Bill Kearns

    I am not suggesting woman are not an important part of the boat buying decision process. In fact, when I work a boat show I usually spend more time trying to sell to the wife and what she is looking for than the husband. To not acknowledge her opinion is boat sale suicide. But to segment a marketing program to one component of the market, namely, “women”, is an incomplete marketing plan.

    Selling quality of product, dependability, reliability,”family” fun are areas the industry should be concentrating its marketing efforts. In this torrid market, overall product value and quality and investment return must be demonstrated.

    Maybe someone can commment on the Women in Boating Campaign a few years back. I would like to hear how it’s effectivenenss was measured.

  11. Jim

    So Bill, you just learned a lesson about never, ever saying anything that can even remotely be considered negative about women; or any considered minority for that matter without having the world attack your words and the attitude they think you might be putting forth.
    I understand what you are trying to say and have heard Sunny’s routine before about a woman being ingnored by a group of guys–and it is the same story every time—and it is always one sided. The women in question never mention how they might have acted at the time to possibly make someone want to ignore them. You’ll never hear that side of the story; ever.
    It’s ok to go against the grain once in a while and I do agree with much of what you said; women are very important to the buying process and should never be ignored; but I as well have had very few women in a long career come to me and buy a boat on their own and for their own use; it just rarely happens.
    As to Wanda, I have read her marketing ideas for years and she makes a lot of sense and I respect her input; and I’m glad she can act on her own and do her own buying. But I also believe she is the exception to the rule, at least in small town America. Maybe in the big cities, things are different and that I hope is one lesson I’ll never learn.
    But “failed to respect my capability or give me the time of day” sounds awfully one sided and sexist to me; and I would like to believe the sales industry in general has gotten well beyond that type of belief.
    At any rate Bill, I don’t think you need to defend yourself; this is still a country where you can express an opinion freely and I hope you continue to do so. Many of the detractors in this blog would speak differently in person–of that much you can be assured.

  12. Arch

    THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST RIDICULOUS AND MEANINGLESS SUBJECTS I”VE SEEN ON THIS SITE. The only one I can think of that was worse was the one about minorities.
    A women is a person, as is a man. We sell boats to people, not men or women, not black or white. Not Asian or Hispanic. Not Gay or Straight. Just PEOPLE.
    Most people are sick of hearing about women this, minority that. It does no good.
    BILL KEARNS IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. To prove it, read his initial post, and then tell me where in it does he say women don’t matter? he doesn’t. He simply stated the fact that most boats he sells are to men. THAT IS A FACT. He could have also said that most boats he sells is to WHITE MEN. I guess minorities would then be posting rude responses to him, when all he did was state the fact.

    Back to the minority/black subject. A while back, when the NMMA discussed programs targeted at minorities, most minorites i know were deeply offended. What most told me was, WE HAVE CARS, we know how to drive to a boat dealership. We know how to go to a boat show. We make money. They saw it as very insincere and were offended, and I COULDN”T AGREE MORE.
    It’s ridiculous to target programs to minorites, women, etc. They will fail, because very few self respecting women or minorities would get involved.
    If you are a woman, or a minority, and you are getting poor service and you think it has something to do with the fact that you are a woman or a minority, then deal with somebody else, go to the mgr, or go to a different business. Let’s not cry victim here and make a big deal about something that is NOT a problem. We have bigger fish to fry in this industry and in this country.

  13. AnonymousBob

    Bill, Jim, Arch:

    Thanks for the look back in history as things “used to be”. It was a nice, nostalgic look back at the innocence of times gone by.

    Your opinions are respected because they are; however, I challenge everyone here to make note on their calendars in 2, 5, 10, 20 years from now to check the status of their dealerships. Bill, Jim, and Arch, in my opinion, probably have a core group of customers from whom they gather most of their initial and referral sales. That pipeline, again in my opinion, is a very short, finite pipeline and I would venture to guess Bill, Jim, and Arch will be out of the industry sooner than the others here. Why do I say that? Because the others here will have diversified their sales and marketing campaigns to more accurately reflect society’s trends instead of remaining in WASP-Male land like Bill, Jim, and Arch. It’s a very simple philosophy: refuse to change and you refuse to stay in business. I don’t wish you guys ill will by any means and, believe me, I do hope you succeed. History tells me, though, that the roses of the future smell a lot different than the roses of the past.
    This is always an interesting topic…

  14. Bill Kearns

    Let’s take it one step further.It is important to realize and understand the difference between a marketing program and selling and sales management. Marketing is identifying potential markets and product needs – it really does not speak to selling at the retail level. I am not sure if my esteemed OEM colleagues above get this or ever will. This industry needs to bring “the buyer” back into the fold, not a segmant of the market.

  15. Carolyn

    I own a marina/dealership and most of my career has been in boat sales. In sales, if we are all doing our jobs correctly, we listen thoroughly to the customers. However, selling requires more tools than listening and asking open ended questions. Observation of behavior is also a great sales tool. Being a keen observer of behavior is not lost on a successful salesperson. Through careful observation, my experience is that many women ultimately make the decision to buy the boat. In selling to couples, we fall short unless we understand the dominant individual is not always the decision maker. The sale, rather it comes in the form of a decision made by a couple, a man, a woman, or any combination, is contingent upon the sales person doing his/her job using all of the tools in the sales box.

    I’ve had the good fortune of seeing positive changes in how women are regarded in the marine world on both sides of the coin. Norm’s comments are spot on, but it is my observation that women have been primary buyers for a long time! Many in sales probably didn’t notice the woman was the primary buyer because they were only focusing on what she thought of the galley.

  16. Arch

    Carolyn, I think everyone here would agree with you 100%.
    ANONYMOUS BOB, are you serious?
    I was pretty clear that I don’t make any distinction between men and women. I don’t market to Men, I market to all people. At boat shows, we talk to Men and Women equally. Explain to me how a dealer markets to men? We don’t meet at strip clubs, we don’t have a MEN ONLY sign.
    I’ve been in the business for over 20 years. I’ve seen many come and go, and I”m still going strong. You can talk all you want about how things have changed, but that is a bunch of nonsense. Selling a boat now is no different than selling one 20 years ago, except when it comes to internet sales. It takes a good product, a knowledgable salesperson who is pleasant to deal with, a competitive price, and sometimes, a full service dealership. All the rest of the stuff is NOISE that industry people like to talk about.
    When I”m talking to a woman, a man, a minority, somebody that is gay, it makes no difference. They all want the same thing. I guess if it was up to you, we should start marketing to black people by marketing to BOAT TRADER FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS. Or have a Gays on Boats Parade. Or maybe we should just fly the Rainbow Flag above our dealership? How about the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for our dealership and boat lines?
    Sound ridiculous? Insincere? You betcha. This reminds me of how the Republican party makes sure a few black people are at the front of the crowds at rallies so that the tv cameras pick them up.
    Yeah, that really makes a difference in the black community.
    What exactly are you proposing?
    For those of you that side with BOB and JOHN, please let me know exactly how you plan to market to women, and minorites. I”m not talking about bogus NMMA stuff, like that BEST program, I”m talking about marketing that translates into immediate sales and really makes a tangible difference?
    There is only so much marketing and advertising a dealership can do. Unless you live in San Francisco and want to fly the GREEN MOVEMENT flag with a marijuana leaf on it, I guarantee you that marketing to the masses will outperform marketing to these smaller groups 3 to 1.
    And that actually brings up a good point. If you want to appeal to the liberal green twenty somethings out there, then you fly that flag. If you want to market to gay people, then send a gay salesperson to the GAY DAY parade with your boat. But when it comes down to it, look at the demographics of todays boat buyer. It’s still dominated by the middle aged white family with $100-200k annual income, 2.2 kids, and Fido, their dog. So if you want to target a small audience with your marketing, all the power to you. I’ll continue my online advertising, print ads, boat shows, tournaments, Business alliance (all of which don’t discriminate or target any particular sex or color). Thank you very much.

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