A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

West Marine and nautical know-how

I was able to catch up with West Marine CEO and president Geoff Eisenberg at the grand opening last Thursday of the company’s newest flagship store in Old Saybrook, Conn.

We talked about his long career with the company — Eisenberg has been with West Marine in a variety of senior executive roles for about 36 years — his pending retirement, the state of marine retailing today and a host of other topics. The interview will appear in my “Letter from the Editor” column in the May issue of Soundings Trade Only.

It’s been almost 4-1/2 years since Eisenberg rejoined West Marine full time in December 2007 as CEO and president and put the big retailer back on a course to profitability. Today, the company — with 311 stores and about 4,200 employees — is solidly profitable and debt-free.

Of his departure, Eisenberg said, “The company is doing well. It seems like a good time. There’s really no drama to it.” He will stay on as an adviser. Eisenberg’s focus now is on helping West Marine through this latest transition, rather than on his future plans.

One thing we discussed was the importance placed on hiring and training, two areas in which West Marine invests a good deal of time, effort and money.

From personal experience, I can attest that one key to a satisfied customer experience in a marine retail environment is to be able to talk to someone who knows something about boats, rather than receiving as a response to your question a look that suggests you’re speaking a dead language.

“We spend an enormous amount of money on product training, e-learning,” said Eisenberg, 59, a longtime sailor. “It’s a technical environment. Everything about it is technical — always has been, always will be.”

And consider that the 25,000-square-foot store in Old Saybrook has almost 20,000 products.

The premium placed on product knowledge is one of the reasons West Marine looks to hire what executive vice president Bruce Edwards calls “super-active boaters.”

“There’s nothing that ever replaces that kind of knowledge,” said Edwards, who at 49 remains an active 505 racing sailor. “We encourage our associates to be on the water as much as possible.”

West Marine estimates that the 40-plus employees, or “associates,” in its flagship Connecticut store collectively have more than 740 years on the water covering more than 160,000 nautical miles.

Reflecting on his tenure with West Marine, Eisenberg said, “The best thing is the progress we have made and are making because progress is positive. I care about progress with our relationships, products, with financials, our customers and our world.”

Eisenberg remembers when he was a young sailor working in a boating supply store in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he met West Marine founder Randy Repass in the early 1970s.

Funny thing, he recalled. West Marine carries some of the same pieces of sailing hardware today that he sold almost four decades ago — in some instances, even the part numbers are the same. “It’s unbelievable,” Eisenberg said.

The more things change …


12 comments on “West Marine and nautical know-how

  1. Ed

    Glad to hear West hires boaters but the product education is lacking. Years ago, as a manufacturer’s rep, I called on West, Boat US and Boater’s/Ritz and the staffing level were very different. Sure the staff were boaters and they knew their boats but new product sales suffered because in-store seminars couldn’t be conducted with only 3 staff members present and customers in the store. Follow-up visits confirmed the lack of product knowledge. Each store had a super knowledgeable person but they were always on the run answering questions.
    Boat US was the exception with adequate staffing and very knowledgeable staffers who could learn during seminars. Lots of Dunkin Donuts and coffee but they sold the new stuff! Now that I’m retired I wish a membership boating store still existed!

  2. john ennis

    Left un mentioned is the fact that here on the west coast of Florida many of the sales people are part timers who hold other jobs and quite a few people who make their livelyhood, repairing and outfitting boats ,only use West Marine as a last resort. Much cheaper prices can be found on the internet.

  3. Rod

    After he visits Annapolis he needs to visit the Massachusetts and Rhode Island stores! Boating knowledge? Only is that means knowing about the latest wakeboard or silly gimmick to be sold to new boat owners, rather than the REAL stuff that we “old salts” are looking for! I have a friend who, like me is a long time sailor ,he used to work at WEST, but then they closed the store he was working in and he says he really felt like he wasn’t welcome transferring to another store, they really weren’t looking for REAL boat knowledge….. but rather seemed to hire young “surfer dudes”. When WEST Marine first opened retail stores in my area (first was in Peabody, MA, then later Braintree, MA and Esat Greenwich. RI) the people working there knew boats, and were GREAT to deal with, it was worth going out of my way to shop at their stores!! They actually stocked the items that I needed, and both quality and quantity were excellant! Now, I’m lucky to find what I’m looking for amongst the cheap ,imported junk and over-priced US made stuff. Want a ski rope? they’ve got it! Want an inflatable palm tree or a ski-tube? They’ve got it! Want a quality Bronze cleat? Don’t got it…. Want up to date Flares? Might find them…..if they’ve finally sold the out of date ones! Want a quart of basic bottom paint? They MIGHt have one can…….but it most likely won’t be in the color you want!

    I needed to replace the bumk brackets on my trailer, went to WEST, they had 1 bracket in stock! (I needed 4 and needed them that week) I went to another WEST….. same story! Next day I went to BOATER’S WORLD, lots of brackets in stock…..and at a lower price! Guees where I bought what I needed? At one time, I would go to WEST if I needed advice in my purchase, and BW if I just wanted the best price on something that I knew was what I wanted. Now, I go to WEST as a last resort, and buy most of what I need online (Hamilton Marine, usually). Even with shipping I often do better!

    That reminds me of another change in their policies, “STORE TO DOOR”, where if they don’t have something in stock, they will order it for you. When we replaced the vents for the cabin on our sailboat back in 1992, the local WEST store only had 1 in stock and we needed 2. The sales staff “bent over backwards” to help us by submitting a “store to door” order for the other vent, it arrived at our house about 1 week later (maybe less!) and there was NO shipping charge!! A few years ago I needed something that was out of stock, the staff ordered it for me, but it wasn’t an easy process…. plus I either had to come back to pick it up in-store, or pay shipping to have it delivered! This was a small item, not something big…..but still it was going ot cost extra to have it shipped!

    WEST isn’t all bad……but they are not what they used to be! And I don’t get the impression that true Boating Knowledge is considered important to their hiring process. It should be! But, unfortunately, the slang term that many of us use, “Worst Marine” isn’t entirely unearned!

    I too miss the old BOAT/US Stores! It was a rare visit that I didn’t feel like I had saved at least the cost of my membership on what I bought! Of course….for REAL good, old-fasioned boating store service….. I REALLY miss JAMES BLISS Marine! (probably dating myself there?) Also, who can forget the mail-order company, “WEST PRODUCTS” (no relation to WEST Marine). M&E Marine also comes to mind, and at least we stil lhave Defender! (Even though Defender was my chief competitor at the Newport Boat Show when I worked for a small chandlery)

  4. Mike Johnson

    West has a beautiful store in Old Saybrook, no doubt. I thnk it’s safe to say that the average age of a sales person is late 20’s. I enjoy the look of the store, but the overpriced merchandise is a whole other story. I can find the same items online for 1/2 of what West charges and I will gladly wait a couple of days to receive it in the mail if I save $$ in the process. If I need it faster, I have other avenues here in Connecticut that I can use that don’t cost me an arm and a leg.

  5. John

    Thanks for the good laugh Mr Eisenberg! I have been in quite a few West Marine Stores and have found most sales people had very little knowledge, especially the Superstore in Middletown R.I.

  6. Paul

    The responses here are typical of what I hear my customers tell me about West Marine every day. To be fair every store has a few good people that know boats, can offer reliable advice and can work the inventory system to their advantage. Get to know who those people are and you’ll usually get what you need.

    What Mr. Eisenberg didn’t say is that West continuously reminds its store managers that payroll is the company’s largest controllable expense. Which means that, in order to save payroll. most stores wind up hiring temporary seasonal part timers. For the most part that means they are hiring high school and college kids who are OK making minimum wage because they think boats are cool. The ones with actual skill and knowledge are working in boat yards and marinas where they can make real money.

    The reason West puts so much into training is that the employee turnover rate is so high. It’s not reasonable to expect avid boaters to work long hours in season, when they’d rather be boating and then cut them loose in late August by reducing the payroll to the point where the store is barely staffed. Instead of considering them as expenses, West would do better to identify which associates are assets, offer them steady year round employment by floating them between a few stores within their area, and save the seasonal hires for cashier and merchandising functions.

  7. Peter

    Sky high prices, port supply cards with no discounts, no inventory, no more noaa charts, one line of resin, everyting must be ordered. PLease Mr. Sisson stop the BS and write a real article.

  8. Chuck

    I have to echo many of the other comments. I am not sure where Mr. Eisenberg gets his information but the reality is that the lack of boating experience and know how in most Worst Marine stores has taken it from the store of first choice to the store of last resort for most active boaters. I suspect their new found profits come from the sales of shoes and shirts rather than the hardware and equipment many of us actually need when we walk through their doors. The switch to cheaply made and inferior products from name brand and quality goods has probably also helped the bottom line, but not the served the customers. Poor inventory control is another often heard customer complaint. Many, many times I have walked out of one of the stores with my cash still in my pocket because I needed the item now and it is never in stock. Too bad that neither Mr. Eisenberg or his replacement will read some of these comments and take some note of what the customers actually say about their experiences with the company instead of a spin for the media.

  9. Doug Reimel

    I am thankfull for West Marine everyday. They drive traffic and sales to my door. I really wish they would lease my building and I will build a new building. This would double my shops billable hours, win,win

  10. Red

    West Marine price matches any legitimate retailer and will refund the difference if you find something you purchased for less elsewhere.

    West Marine carries 2-4 knowledgable, full time, year round employees per store (depending on sales volume for that location)

    I work at a West Marine, I care about helping customers, and I consider myself pretty knowledgable. I find many of these comments extremely unfair. West Marine could sell all made in the USA products at reduced prices and paper thin margins and carry a full staff year round, even in seasonal areas. However that would be a good recipe for going out of business. (See many of our competitors that are mentioned here and no longer exist.)

    Can you walk into a West Marine and the first sales person you encounter be a not so knowledgable kid? Yes.
    Is there someone there who can find the answer to your question that he or she can ask? Yes.

    An excellent price matching policy, a very liberal “no hassle gaurantee”, and the convenience of stores that are open 7 days a week……… It is not as bad as it is made out to be here. In fact it is the first place that I would shop, even if I didn’t work there.

  11. Shelly

    Wow. I am seriously surprised at all the negative comments. We shop at West Marine all the time and take advantage of their Price Matching. True, you can get stuff cheaper over the Internet, but I like to be able to see the product before purchasing and I can do that at WM and get the internet price on in-stock items. When I do have to order it usually comes in within a couple days.

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