Features October 15, 2001 Issue

Website Shopping at the Big Four

West Marine's site has been carefully developed and tended for years, and it shows, across the board. The BoatU.S. site is also well-polished.

As a marketplace, the Worldwide Web promises new convenience—linking consumers to a limitless supply of goods that can be had with the speed of a mouse-click and an overnight delivery truck. 

Some items, like snatch blocks, are easy
enough to shop for online; others are better
bought at stores so you can get your hands
on them first.

That's the theory, so Practical Sailor went surfing to test it. We shopped at four websites in the marine department store category with a wide range of goods: BoatU.S., Boater's World, Defender, and West Marine. We also surfed, but did not test, some sites that specialize in narrower markets (see sidebar).

It's easy enough to shop online for a handheld GPS or a pair of binoculars—discrete items that are easily identified by brand and model, and that are usually "movers" that are well pitched and described on the sites. It's another matter to shop for everyday items we need at the chandlery when the paint is half dry or we have a rag stuffed in a hole somewhere.

Practical Sailor always has tests in the works, and we always need materials for them, so we decided to see how well we'd do stocking up on things for a couple of projects down the line. Our list included a bunch of fenders, a bunch of marine greases and lubricants, and a large number of stainless hex-head bolts with nuts, flat washers, and lock washers to match.

These last items, as we all know, are usually the most annoying to buy— you go to the bin at the chandlery for two dozen; there are 17 available, and when you get home you find that three of them are a quarter-inch too short because an employee stocked them wrong or a customer carelessly tossed them back into the wrong bin.

What We Tested
Gone are many of the local chandleries, family-owned and well-stocked, with a salty owner who knows every item in stock and is a wealth of information and entertainment. Still, we kept old-fashioned values in mind when shopping for our goods. We wanted to find virtual parallels to equal those qualities of trust, expertise, dependability, and the ease and enjoyment of the search.

Below are the general areas we looked at. We summarize our findings and assessments in the charts covering each site.

First impressions: Once you know a web merchant delivers, first impressions may not be as important. But if you're hunting for a marine site that's more than simply a storefront, first impressions do count. Some sites offer no more than basic window shopping; some give you access to an entire community of boaters and information.

The user friendly test: It's clear that some merchants have put themselves in the consumer's shoes; others are letting the tail (the set-up and programming of the site) wag the dog (the consumer). When we searched for products, we wanted to travel a well-planned superhighway—not follow a row of breadcrumbs. We also looked at how easy it was to register as a customer, use a shopping cart, check out, and track orders.

Product information: The only source of product information online is what's written to accompany a product and what's pictured as an illustration. A good site makes this format a powerful tool (think amazon.com); a poor site gives you scant information and hard-to-decipher graphics.

Customer service: There was no knowledgeable salesperson to answerquestions and no live help on any of the four sites we tested, so customer service and online response time is key. A good site keeps you informed about your order, tells you when it's shipped, and responds to questions in a reasonable amount of time. When pertinent product information was missing, we resorted to sending an e-mail query that took two days, at best, to answer. That turnaround time was standard among the sites we shopped at. So much for the speed of the web.

Money matters: All these outfits do high-volume sales and can offer discounts. We found a range of prices among them, even for less expensive items. But you can't evaluate those costs until you factor in taxes and shipping charges. We looked at the price of shipping and how well we were informed about the costs we'd incur as an online shopper.

The display: Were products well organized and showcased, or was it more like shopping in a bargain basement? Were graphics helpful, or just space-fillers?

The goods: Did the site have what we were looking for? Were goods in stock? Were we told what was in stock and what was back-ordered before we checked out?

Trust and policies: We shopped at well-established national outfits, so we didn’t have to worry that our order was going to a 22-year-old running a web business from his bedroom with little hope of delivering the goods in time. But even with established outfits, trust and policies count.

Online shopping has created a new kind of contract. Web merchants need to earn consumers' confidence, so we focused on the policies that would earn our trust. Does the company pass your information to a third party? Do they give you an easy way to opt out of receiving promotional e-mails? Was it easy to evaluate their policies before we shopped?

What We Found
There are some industries (think books and CDs) that naturally lend themselves to e-tailing. The items are relatively low cost, so the uninitiated shopper is more likely to get on the web and give it a go; there's little expertise needed beyond your own personal taste to make a choice; and there's no customization in the products. But the marine marketplace is very different when it comes to shopping online.

Because product range and price range is so wide in the boating world, your trust and confidence in the outfit you're buying from is a real issue. So while you might buy a pair of fenders online without a second thought, you might not feel as confident purchasing an inflatable with outboard.

Because boaters need specialized knowledge (or access to a person who has that knowledge) to choose the right gear for their boats, the neophyte may find the web a tough place to begin. Add to that the customization needed with some gear and equipment, and you see that even a knowledgeable sailor will often need help from the other side of the screen.

As we suspected, we had the most trouble finding the specific bolts, nuts and washers we needed. In many cases we found fastener sets including the items we wanted, but we'd be buying lots of other fasteners we didn’t need. We were lucky when we found the items we wanted prepackaged in lots of, say, 20.

These four department-store sites are not the only places to shop for boating gear. So as you venture out onto the web, keep the criteria we used in mind and heed some general guidelines:

Do your homework: Take the time to check out a site's policies before you shop. Make sure you understand return procedures, how shipping is charged, their take on credit card fraud, privacy and security policies, and what the company promises in terms of delivery time.

Factor in shipping and taxes when you comparison shop: We found a range in shipping costs and websites that did not have to charge tax in our state. When you compare sites, favor the one that will let you have all the tax and shipping figures before you check out. Otherwise, you may save on product price but end up paying more with shipping charges and tax added in.

Get the right product information: Some write-ups we saw were pretty scant and some illustrations were hard to decipher. Find a site that tells you what you need to know. Customer reviews can also be helpful.

The sites we shopped at did not earn A+ for quick response time to e-mailed product questions. Make sure you can get access to the right expertise—even if you have to use that archaic device, the telephone.

Remember how much more complicated the world of boat gear is than the world of books and CDs. There will always be items you need to see and touch and measure before you buy them. By all means, see how good a job the boating e-tailers do at providing an accurate picture of these items— graphically, textually, and numerically. But if your online quest repeatedly leads you into dead-ends, save your sanity: Jump in the car and head for the chandlery.

Conclusions
It's clear that some marine merchants have made the investment of thought and money to get well ahead of others in the marine e-tailing trade. If the ones who are more advanced in their web capabilities earn your business and trust first, they deserve it.

While it pays to become adept at navigating your favorite site, keep making the rounds of other sites that seek to deliver exactly what you need. Commercial sites change day to day: It's a tremendous challenge for the businesses, but still a lot easier than rearranging bricks and mortar.

We learned that no single outfit was perfect, but West Marine earned the highest marks. Their site was easy to use; their search engines were quick and accurate; their site design was clean; they carried the largest percentage of goods on our list; shipping costs were low; and they had solid product information and customer ratings and reviews.

 

Also With This Article
Click here to view an evaluation of the Boater's World online store.
Click here to view an evaluation of the Boat U.S. online store.
Click here to view an evaluation of the Defender online store.
Click here to view an evaluation of the West Marine online store.
Click here to view "Other Online Waypoints for Sailors."

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