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Product Knowledge
October/November 2011

Tips on selling tents

MARK JOHNSTON shares some tips from experts on how best to display and sell tents

We South Africans love our camping holidays. After rugby and braaing and speculating about Riaan Cruywagen’s hair, it’s practically a national religion. Ergo, selling tents should be a piece of cake, right? Unfortunately not.

Part of the challenge is that there’s such a wide variety of makes and models available. Then there’s the fact that tents are bulky items, so displaying them is much harder than it is for other outdoor equipment, such as headlamps or gas stoves.

One option is obviously to rent more floor space! But the good news is that there are also some more affordable alternatives.

On display

Everybody I interviewed for this article was in agreement that the best way to sell a tent is to actually have it pitched in the store. “A tent that’s inside the bag is harder to sell,” says André Naude of Bushtec. Simon Larsen of RAM Mountaineering, importers of the Black Diamond and E3 ranges, agrees: “There’s no doubt that retailers who sell the most tents are the ones who actually set them up.”

But the problem with this, as already mentioned, is that pitched tents gobble up lots of floor space.

Alexi Prodromou of Seagull Industries, supplier of Oztrail tents and camping equipment, offers a clever compromise: “If space is limited then you can get away with creating a ‘camping scene’ in a central display area.” He suggests that you start by putting up a 3x3 metre gazebo. Underneath this pitch a four-person tent, then complete the scene by adding accessories such as stretcher beds and camping chairs. “This set-up only uses 9m2 of floor space, yet it immediately draws attention to the fact that you sell tents.”

There are other ways to display tents without using up precious shop floor real estate. Prodromou suggests hanging them from the walls, or even upside down from the ceiling. Yes, this might involve quite a bit of PT — and a reel or two of fishing line — but the point is that if floor space is limited, there are still ways of letting your customers know that you stock tents, which in turn should translate into more sales.

Keep it neat

Whatever option you go with, it’s important that the tent(s) are pitched neatly. “First impressions count, so make it look good,” says André Naude. Tents that appear lopsided or untidy are a no-no. “Use weights or sandbags to keep the guylines tensioned,” he suggests.

Also consider pitching them without the flysheet. Not only do they look neater; this way the customer can see the pole structure, something that’s especially important when it comes to buying more technical tents.

In those instances where it’s impossible to pitch a tent, another neat, space-saving alternative is to use a dedicated tent stand.

One supplier who makes these available to their customers is RAM Mountaineering. While the tents are displayed closed (i.e. in the bag) on the shelves, posters on each side of the stand show photographs of each model pitched, along with important specs and information. The result: you can effectively display a large number of tents with minimal clutter.

Know the facts

Grabbing the customer’s attention is only half the game.

Also essential is that you are able to follow through by helping them choose the right tent. This in turn calls for two things: being able to ask the right questions, and having the correct product information readily available.

The latter should be relatively straightforward.

Most suppliers offer brochures or posters with details of their product selection. These can be used to show the customer important specs about the tent (size, weight, material and so on), as well as compare models to find the one that best suits their needs.

Obviously, it makes sense to have this information close at hand: posters should be stuck on the wall closest to your display; alternatively, spec sheets can be attached directly to the tent.

“It’s important that you know the facts. The consequences of selling somebody the wrong tent could be serious, possibly even deadly,” says Geoff Ward of Outward Ventures, the local agents for MSR.

If for whatever reason data on the tent is not available, it’s important to be straight with the customer rather than winging it. This is particularly significant when selling models for use in extreme conditions, such as those designed for climbing and mountaineering.

“Rather tell the customer you don’t know but will find out and get back to them,” says Naude.

Ask questions

What questions you ask will obviously vary somewhat, depending on the type of tents you sell — e.g. classic safari dome tents versus high-performance ones for climbing Mount Everest. But in general the following are a good starting point:

What do you want to use it for? Your first port of call should always be to ascertain what activities the customer plans to use their tent for. The short answer is camping, of course!

But as they say, the devil is in the detail, so be sure to dig a little deeper: where do they want to use it? What time of year? Who is going to use it? If the answer is family holidays on the Natal South Coast, for example, then you should direct them to a tent with plenty of living space, perhaps even separate rooms for parents and kids.

If the answer is hiking in the Cederberg then space will be less important than factors such as the weight of the tent, and whether or not it can be easily separated into different parcels (so the load can be split between two or three people).

The key here is accurately determining what the customer’s needs are, then offering them the best match from your tent selection and – hopefully — making the sale.

Canvas or nylon? The above question will also guide you as to the type of material to recommend. Canvas tents are popular in South Africa because they’re strong and hard-wearing, making them a good choice for use in the bush.

However, they’re also a mission to erect because the material is heavy and bulky, which is why they’re not recommended for “short stay” holidays, for example weekends or road trips where the customer will be striking and pitching camp every day.

The alternative is nylon (or polyester), which is lighter than canvas, but not as durable.

So, for car camping the rule of thumb is nylon tents for short stay and canvas for longer holidays. For backpacking, hiking, cycling and any other activity where the tent will be carried in a backpack, nylon is the only option because of its low weight.

How many people is it for? Tent sizes are rated according to the number of people they can accommodate, for example two-person, three-person and so on.

Customers who are going car camping can be more flexible here since weight and packed space aren’t such an issue (because the tent is transported in the boot). In this instance you might want to suggest that they buy one size larger — e.g. a couple can take a three-person tent — so that they have some extra room for their bags and other equipment.

By contrast, a motorcyclist going on a solo mission through Namibia will need the smallest, lightest single-man tent available. Once again, guiding the customer to the right tent is a key factor in making the sale.

Let’s get technical

In general, Joe Sixpack won’t be too excited about all the finer technical details when purchasing a tent. Indeed, it may be prudent to steer clear of these (unless asked) — bombarding him with too many facts and figures could just confuse the issue.

However, those customers who want to buy a tent for more extreme camping, such as trekking or mountaineering, will usually expect you to be able to have a high level of product knowledge. And with good reason. Not only will the choice of tent contribute to the success or failure of their expedition; high-performance tents cost a lot more than regular ones, so it’s important to be able to relay all the benefits to the customer so that they feel they’re getting value for money.

So, what are the key technical details to discuss?

Weight — or lack thereof — is usually a big selling point, so draw their attention to special kilo-cutting technologies, such as the use of lightweight fabrics.

Strength is also crucial, in particular the ability of the tent to withstand very high winds. Here you should focus on the pole configuration (framework), pointing out that the greater the number of pole intersections, the stronger the tent.

Finally, top-end tent manufacturers have a reputation for superior back-up, so it’s worth mentioning that if the tent does get damaged they’ll be able to have it repaired or replaced.

A final thought: add-on sales

Don’t forget that when selling tents there is plenty of opportunity for add-ons. Many suppliers offer extra groundsheets — often called “footprints” — that are designed to be placed under the tent, protecting the base and extending the lifespan of the tent.

Another product that will extend the lifespan is Nikwax Tent and Gear SolarProof, a spray-on treatment that protects the flysheet from UV damage.

And for those customers who need extra space, certain brands, such as MSR, offer add-a-rooms, literally an extension to the main tent that can be used to house additional people or equipment.

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