Marine fabricators stay afloat following new fabric trends.
By Derek Robinson
In today’s challenging business environment, marine fabricators need to be tuned into trends within the industry, and within the larger sales and marketing landscape, to weather economic changes and position themselves for future growth. One of the most promising industry trends is the development of specialized marine fabrics. Through the use of innovative fabric constructions and yarn selections and finishes, the marine textiles industry is moving to the next level, not only offering extended performance warranties, but creating fabrics with specialized characteristics for specific applications as well. In fact, the knowledgeable marine fabricator can select a fabric for virtually every marine need, opening up opportunities to bring fresh, new ideas to boat owners and potential customers. From biminis to boat covers and from cabin cushions to sun protection, there are fabrics specifically engineered for the diverse range of boating applications.
Technician and consultant
The common element for all marine fabrics is performance—durability, fade resistance and easy cleaning—but performance capabilities go beyond these qualities. Among the advances: two-sided fabrics for biminis and boat enclosures, offering performance to withstand the elements and a velour-like underside for luxury; light-filtering open weave fabrics that provide a level of privacy along with protection for windows and interiors; fabrics for boat interiors and cockpits that offer all of the comfort and style of a sofa at home, yet are mold and mildew resistant; and value-oriented, fade-resistant fabrics for boat covers that can be safely towed at highway speeds.
In addition, styles and the array of solid colors for exterior marine fabrics continue to grow. While ‘pacific blue’ has been the mainstay for decades, today’s fashion-conscious boaters are attracted to marine fabrics in many different hues of greens, blues and earth tones.
The marine fabricator who stays up-to-date can use these new fabrics for sales success. Visiting the websites of leading suppliers on a regular basis will provide much of the information needed. Participating in the Marine Fabricators Association and its regional associations also keeps members current on new products and best practices for strengthening business.
With this increased base of knowledge, marine fabricators can assume the role of consultant, rather than just a marine design and technical sewing specialist. When a customer indicates an interest in a new bimini, suggest he consider two-sided fabrics; when you are working on a boat cover, take notice of the boat’s interior and have samples of interior fabrics to suggest. While you’re at it, tell the boat owner how much more comfortable his deck and cockpit would be with cotton-like fabrics that can withstand the sun and wet swimsuits. The boat owner might not order a new interior or cushions today, but at least you have given him or her something to consider.
Put your sales hat on
Of course, a larger array of fabrics is only part of the answer to sustaining sales in a down economy. Salesmanship and marketing are more important than ever, with web-based and guerilla marketing leading current trends. Take advantage of these relatively inexpensive marketing considerations based on current consumer trends.
Former customers. When was the last time you contacted your former customers? Past, satisfied customers are the best source for new business, not only for their own boats but for referrals. Consider a simple post card mailing, perhaps offering a winter discount on small repairs along with tips on winterization. Better yet, record the e-mail addresses of your customers so that you can send periodic information on new products and boating tips.
Referrals. Do you ask for referrals after every job? Do you make it easy for your customers to make referrals to you? Seeking referrals can be as simple as offering your business card to each customer when the job is done and asking that they give your name to other boaters. It is amazing how many business owners are reluctant to ask for referrals. In fact, satisfied boaters are glad to tell their friends about trusted resources.
Items of appreciation. Make items out of fabric scraps to give customers when completing a job. Winch covers, ditty bags and table mats are possibilities. A small item of appreciation could lead to a big referral.
Website. If you don’t have a website, get one. You need a place where boaters can find you, learn about fabrics and applications, and link to the suppliers. All you need is a digital camera and a computer, and packages are available that make the creation of a website relatively inexpensive.
Get out of the shop. Wandering the docks at local marinas will no doubt turn up boats that need work. An awning fabricator I know would often leave his card and a proposal with a building owner who needed a new awning, which regularly led to new work.
Smaller jobs. While boat owners may be reluctant to undertake a major job, they may be interested in smaller improvements. By suggesting ways that a boat owner can enhance his craft without spending a lot, you’ll become a valued resource when his confidence returns for larger expenditures.
No matter the industry or the economic conditions, the most successful businesses are those that capitalize on dominant trends. This fact is certainly true for today’s marine fabricator. Innovation in marine textiles is a dominant trend that can open up sales opportunities, and innovation in web-based and guerilla marketing enhances your return on investment and can help to level the playing field between large companies and small.
Boating is a lifestyle that is ingrained in our culture and it’s not going anywhere. Use this knowledge as a basis for long-term confidence as you capitalize on today’s trends to weather tough times and position yourself for the next upturn.