Sell Customers the Right Canoe or Kayak

One critical variable can and must be applied to every customer who walks through the door: their budget.

Sell Customers the Right Canoe or Kayak

A few months ago, I received a call from a causal friend who also an occasional paddling partner. My friend, who is in his 50s and looking forward to his upcoming retirement after a 27-year law enforcement career, said he was thinking about purchasing a couple of kayaks or, maybe, a canoe and a kayak.

One for he and one for his wife.

“Which one would you recommend?” he asked.

This is a question I hear surprisingly often. It’s also one that I dread and answer with extreme hesitation. Although my work and general sporting interests do afford me the opportunity to paddle frequently and try various boats, I am hardly an expert. I advised my friend to check with a local retailer and recommended a couple of dealers where expert advice would be readily available.

“People at both stores are very knowledgeable and will be happy to help and will be able to answer any questions you’ll have,” I told him.

He wasn’t interested.

“Aww . . . they’ll just try to sell me something,” he said.

Well, yes. Paddle sport retailers do want to sell boats. But they want to sell customers the right boat.

The right boat varies with every buyer. Is the customer a fisherman? Whitewater enthusiast? Flatwater paddler? Hunter? Paddling novice? Experienced paddler? There are too many variables to list here. But one critical variable can and must be applied to every customer who walks through the door.


For a handful of customers price may not be an issue. But these folks are few and far between. Everyone has a budget, including my friend who wanted a recommendation for a boat.

“All canoes and kayaks and even paddle boards have their advantages and disadvantages,” I said cautiously. “No one boat will do everything well. Which boat is best for you really depends on what you want to do and where you want to paddle. How often do you plan on going? A couple of times a year or a couple of times a week? How much experience do you have? Do you need something stable for flatwater? Do you want to outrig it? How are you’re going to transport it and where you’re going to store it? All these things are factors. And the other thing, of course, is how much money do you want to spend. That’s probably the biggest thing for most people.”

I hit a nerve. Money does that.

My friend confessed that he had already been shopping at the local big box store, where rows of molded kayaks and canoes were stacked outside the Home & Garden center like plastic sentinels and $199 plus tax would put you on the water. I suspected that he had already made up his mind.

“What about one of those?” he asked brightly.

If you’re an independent paddle sports retailer combating big box store pricing is a daily challenge. If you’re looking for a simple answer to this vexing retail conundrum, stop reading. I don’t have one. There isn’t one.

The solution, however, is knowledge – product knowledge and customer knowledge and the ability to weld to two into effective salesmanship.

My friend – a novice paddler but devoted fisherman - was obviously attracted to the low price. Who could blame him? Everyone wants a bargain. But climbing into a kayak or canoe and launching into a creek, pond, river or lake just because it was cheap is rarely a good idea. Retailers should remember this but not employ it as a scare tactic. Knowledge and information are your best sales tools. And the knowledge must include how much your customer can spend and how much he or she is willing to spend, which are not always the same amount. Ask. And probe for an honest answer. To build repeat business it’s important not to oversell.

“I’ve never paddled one,” I answered, honestly about the big box store boats. “I know several people who have them.”

Manufacturers aren’t blind to the needs of budget minded buyers. Old Town, for example, rolled out its Solo Sportsman 119 last year. The boat, which is something of a canoe/kayak hybrid but more closely resembles a traditional canoe than traditional kayak (probably because it is built on Old Town’s time tested Discovery 119 canoe chassis), is targeted for anglers and hunters but is also marketed as an affordable one-size-fit-all rig. An everyman rig. The MSRP is $999.

Old Town brand manager Ryan Lilly said feedback from “customers and retailers” drove the Sportsman’s design and introduction. Pricing also undoubtedly went into the equation.

“The Solo Sportsman offers the simplicity and utility of a classic solo canoe with the agility and sleek handling of a kayak,” Lilly said. “It combines the best of both worlds: lightweight, super maneuverable and tons of storage space for gear.”

My friend had paddled a Sportsman and had apparently been impressed but not sold. “I just don’t know that it’s worth the extra money,” he said, then added another dreaded question: “You think it is?”

“With canoes and kayaks, like generally everything else, you pretty much get what you pay for,” I said. “If you have $200 to spend then shop in that range. But price usually reflects quality.” I reminded him that good used boats can also sometimes be had a bargain or discounted price. And the same paddle sport retailer who would happily answer questions occasionally have pre-owned, discount-priced rigs they have taken on trade.

“It would just be good,” I concluded, “to talk to a dealer who knows about boats before buying.” 


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