Darren Bush, Rutabaga

Paddlesports: “If you can educate customers, they will trust you”

Darren Bush, Rutabaga

Darren Bush, Rutabaga Paddlesports.

What is the secret of customer relationship management in watersports and beyond? A relationship based on trust, is everything says Darren Bush, one of the leading paddlesports retailers in the U.S. in an interview with the ISPO Newsblog. At the upcoming ISPO SHANGHAI from July, 2-4, Bush will give a presentation and will share the lessons that he learned at home with Asian retailers.

Darren, how has the spring season been in the U.S. so far? All okay in terms of weather and business?

So far it has been a very healthy early season. It has been cooler and not so humid, and with the exception of stand-up paddleboards, which require good, hot days, we have been doing well in sales. Customers seem to be very keen on getting outside at this time of the year.

How would you describe the current difficulties and opportunities in American water sports retail?

The difficulties are not that different from what they have been. There are of course logistical challenges, such as the expense of moving and storing large, relatively fragile items. You can ship a bicycle in a box for about ten bucks and store it in a very small space. I have two warehouses that are 700 square meters each just to store my boats.

The bigger challenge is the same everywhere; how to increase participation. Even though the market is relatively mature for paddlesports, it’s still really only three decades old, and compared to the rest of sporting goods, we’re still in our childhood. People still have misconceptions about what paddlesports are all about and are reluctant to try them, because they think you have to kayak over a waterfall to be a paddler.

Youth participation continues to challenge us. We see children spending more and more time in front of screens or staring at their smartphones. The biggest challenge we face is getting kids to want to go outside, and teaching their parents that it’s okay to let their children wander a bit. While this is a challenge, it’s also a great opportunity because if you can get a child to love paddling, their parents often come along too.

In the U.S., Chinese people are known as very hard working. As people work more, they will want to play more to refresh their spirits and reduce their stress. Being outside, and particularly on the water, is a great tonic for an overworked body and mind.

How is it going with price levels and the challenges which come with them?

The distribution of paddling equipment seems to be splitting into two channels: traditional outdoor sports channels and alternative, usually unexpected channels. The pricing seems to go along with the distribution. Sporting goods stores tend to sell higher quality equipment, and the warehouse stores and places that sell the gear next to the patio furniture tend to sell no-brand, low quality gear.

There are some retailers who continue to lower prices to try to gain market share, but it’s a bad tactic, since there will always be someone who will sell the product for a lower price, which causes the downward spiral. We try to reframe the argument away from price and toward value. As I tell customers, the most expensive boat is the one that costs $250 and you use once.

I joke sometimes that there are kayaks, and there are kayak-shaped objects. We want people to love the sport from the first time they try it.”

Darren Bush, president, Rutabaga Paddlesports

My biggest concern is about customer experience with poor equipment. If a person thinks “I think I’ll try stand-up paddling” and buys a bad board and a bad paddle from an automotive store, they may try it, hate it, and never do it again. That is a customer who is lost forever, because they were ignorant and bought based on price. I joke sometimes that there are kayaks, and there are kayak-shaped objects. We want people to love the sport from the first time they try it.

Any new ideas how to manage customer relations?

I don’t believe there are new ideas on how to handle customer relations. It’s not that hard, you just have to make sure you have a culture of empathy, to see things like the customer sees them. The reason customer relations take a turn for the worse is because we get stuck in a battle of egos with a customer. We all make mistakes, but when we are sincere about apologizing, taking ownership of the problem and fixing it, the customers are almost always quick to forgive us. When we try to hide our mistakes or blame them on others, the customer sees this and will go away.

bush_darren-3We had a customer recently become angry with us for one of our policies about holding classes even if it’s raining a little. We certainly don’t want to hold a class when there are dangerous conditions like lightning and high winds, but a little rain doesn’t hurt anyone. This particular customer thought she shouldn’t have to take a class in the rain. From her perspective, that would make her class a bad experience, so we made an exception and allowed her to reschedule, and to give us 24 hours notice if she would not be there. She was delighted and told a lot of her friends about how we treated her. So yes, policies are important, but flexibility is also important.

I feel that the way to grow a sport is like farming. We have to prepare the soil, plant seats, and care for them as they grow.”

You are giving a keynote presentation at this year’s ISPO SHANGHAI to give Asian retailers an idea about the paddle sports market in the U.S. Share with us your ideas on how to promote an emerging sport in a country like China.

I will talk about this in my presentation, but I feel that the way to grow a sport is like farming. We have to prepare the soil, plant seats, and care for them as they grow. We need to grow customers from the ground up and do it so that they will be the next farmers to grow the next crop of paddlers.

We also need to be good educators. The problem isn’t what customers know, it’s what they think they know that isn’t true: Kayaking is dangerous and has to be whitewater, it’s only for young people, you need to know how to do a kayak roll to paddle, etc. If you can educate a customer, you will form a relationship of trust with them. Just the other day I was talking with a customer who I have known for many years. She came into the store and said “This is what I want to do; I trust you, what should I get?” That’s the place we all want to be; where the customer trusts us with their experience.

You have been working in the U.S. paddling market for quite a while. What is more important to attract customers: retail development and  selling products or  investments in infrastructure on the spot?

avatar_with_dog-2I think it’s both. You want to create opportunities for communities to come together. Once people are engaged and belong to the paddling community, the retail part becomes much easier. We need to remember we sell experiences, not gear, and the gear comes along for the ride.

We put on two paddlesports events that are specifically designed to educate. One of them happens to be a large sale at the same time, but we focus on the presentations and classes. But what we notice is that people exit a seminar on how to buy a paddle, go straight to the vendor and say “I want to buy this paddle.” I’ll talk more about that in my presentation as well.

There’s an old Latin saying from Cicero that says a teacher should docere, delectare, et movere. In plain English, we should teach, delight, and emotionally move the students. If we can teach, delight and engage our customers on an emotional level, we can win the heart and mind of that customer.

When you get to China: Any whitewater location you want to visit?

I confess I don’t know the rivers in the area, and I won’t be equipped to paddle whitewater, but I would love to visit some of the canal cities like Luzhi or Tongli and paddle a canoe or kayak there. I find the best part about traveling is making new friends and sharing traditional food. Chinese food here is Americanized and pretty dull, I can’t wait to try fresh jellyfish. Doing that in a restaurant overlooking a canal would be amazing.

Darren Bush is president of Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison, Wisconsin, and member of the board of directors of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA). He will participate as keynote. Bush is a watersports industry veteran, and long-time owner of Rutabaga, America’s leading multi-channel paddlesports retailer also operating Canoecopia, the world’s largest consumer sales event for the sport.


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