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Duncan Pattenden
Photo: Nelle du Toit
October/November 2013

Selling more...

diving and snorkelling equipment

Duncan Pattenden has over 30 years’ experience in selling diving and outdoor equipment in Cape Town. As owner of Orca Industries, he is seen as somewhat of a walking encyclopaedia on diving and the equipment needed to safely practice the sport. He has explored all forms of diving – from commercial diving, underwater photography to organising overseas diving trips to the top diving locations around the world. It is no wonder he is considered to be the expert in selling diving equipment.

One of the most important aspects of selling is making the customer feel comfortable, Duncan Pattenden, owner of Orca Industries, explains.

“The quicker the customer settles down, the better,” he says. The atmosphere within the shop often plays a pivotal role. It’s like walking into someone’s house, some houses you instantaneously feel like you are at home once you enter, whilst others make you feel uncomfortable quickly — a store should make the customer feel like they are at home.

Sales staff should be friendly and welcoming, but not make the customer feel like they are being watched or pounced on.

One of the most important characteristics of a good salesperson is the ability to listen to the customer to find out exactly what he wants, Pattenden stresses. Answer the question that was asked and after that you can talk to him/her about anything else that you’d wish to add.

Assess what the customer wants — is s/he here to kill time and kick the tyres? Are they doing research to see what’s new on the market? Or are they looking to buy a specific product?

If the customer has time on their hands spend as much time with them as possible, if it becomes clear that they are not going to buy, you should also be able balance other duties as well, he advises. Especially in the diving market, there are many hobbyists who enter the store and it’s not always possible to spend too much time with all of them.

“Product knowledge is key,” he says. Customers often throw out a technical question to staff members just to see whether they have the knowledge of the products before they decide whether or not they will purchase from them. That’s where staff training comes in.

“We have staff training on a weekly basis,” he says. “We’ve done training on how to sell each product that we stock. Our aim is to allow the customer to make an informed decision on what to buy and not just hand over items for them to try on.”

Especially with highly technical items (such as diving cylinders, etc.) customers could have been previously advised to buy an item that would not necessarily suit them. In a case like that it is important to listen to the customer and thereafter advise and explain why you would recommend one item over the other. “One of the worst things you can do to your customer is offer them conflicting advice and confuse them,” Pattenden explains.

With technical items it is important to weigh up the pros and cons of the different products so that the customer is informed about their decision. It is important to be sure of the advice that you are giving them.

“Sometimes a customer has to be educated about the use, because you don’t want them to walk out the door with a product that can potentially cause them harm.”

It also helps if you have been to the locations that the customer is going to and used the equipment yourself.

“I’ve often been to the places that the customer is going to go dive and it helps being able to give them extra tips on what to look out for. It also helps sales when you can advise them to take something to a specific area that will make their journey more comfortable,” Pattenden says.

Getting return customers

It is a trick to keep customers coming back to your store. “Becoming friends with your customers is quite important when you are a specialized operation like we are,” Pattenden says. “When you distance yourself from your customer you lose the loyalty.”

Loyalty is earned by knowing customers’ first names, knowing their wives’ names, knowing what happened in their lives, etc.

“Our customers also stay informed and get notified on specials through our newsletters.”

Many of their customers are repeat buyers and some customers leave their old gear in store to be sold as second hand equipment.

Customer preferences

In the diving world, brand and product awareness is very important.

“Certain brands do very well in Johannesburg while you can’t sell that brand in Cape Town,” Pattenden explains. This often has to do with the communities that the divers are exposed to. Independent instructors are quite big business in Johannesburg, while it’s not a viable career in Cape Town. This can easily affect trade and the perception divers have of certain brands/products as instructors are often representatives of certain diving brands.

Cape Town customers generally tend to be more price conscious and they like their black or neutral colours, whereas Johannesburg customers often like the items that stand out a bit more.

Independent specialist stores need to diversify in order to survive, believes Pattenden.

“At Orca, we sell as well as service and repair all diving equipment — from cylinders to buoyancy compensators, masks, comp systems, etc. We are also one of the only shops in Cape Town that offers air purity tests. We also certify cylinders to ensure that the permit shows exactly how much nitrogen, water levels and oil levels are.”

By offering these repair services, they attract the more technical minded divers.

If you run a specialist store, it helps to have an affiliation to a training facility as it is a way to attract newcomers to your store.

“We have very few customers walking in and buying equipment without having done the beginner’s course first.”

Normally, a customer would do a beginner’s diving course, decide whether he likes the sport, and then buy snorkelling gear. Only after that would he look into buying the more technical diving gear.

Tips for selling snorkelling equipment

Before fitting a mask Pattenden recommends that you first discuss a few features with your customer — like the benefits and disadvantages of tempered glass, low or high volume, peripheral vision, the quality and material of the straps, etc.

“When selling a mask you want to see whether the mask actually fits the face so you’ll put the straps around the front and then ask the customer to put their face onto the mask — not the mask onto their face,” he advises.

  • The customer would then sniff gently through the nose before they bring their head up to check in the mirror whether it sits correctly and to ensure there are little or no leaks.
  • The customer should be able to feel the cold silicon touching their face all the way around the masks edge. If a customer asks how they will know whether the mask will be waterproof, explain to them that as long as the mask is skin-tight, or air-tight, it will be water-tight.
  • A customer with long hair might find a neoprene strap more comfortable than a silicone strap and it will be less likely to cause hair breakage.

A mask is not necessarily a performance item — so people are not always prepared to pay too much for a mask.

Snorkel

A snorkel and fins are performance items and it is here where you can try to convince the customer to spend a little bit more. If a snorkel does not perform properly, the customer will swallow a lot saltwater.

  • The snorkel needs to be smooth inside for the water to be able to be blasted through the snorkel pipe. Make sure that there is no resistance otherwise the water gets blocked from going through the pipe.
  • A corrugated snorkel can quite comfortably be used for snorkelling, as well as scuba diving.
  • A silicon (one-way) valve helps prevent water from entering the top of the tube – when a diver dives down the valve closes and the customer can easily blast water out of the snorkel.
  • Some snorkels are flexible and can be folded to a very small size and transported under water. Especially underwater hockey players and divers that would like to keep an extra snorkel on hand (folded to a small size) would be interested in this type of snorkel. When the snorkeler surfaces they can unfold the snorkel and use it close to the surface of the water to breathe.
Diving fins

When selling diving fins, it helps to suggest a product from a reputable brand as they will most likely accept returns should there be a problem, Pattenden suggests.

  • A fin angles upward when a diver kicks down and then snaps back (recovers) to its original shape. The recovery rates of fins differ and this can be tested by pulling the edge backward. If it is too soft, the fin will not have enough of a recovery rate to propel the diver forward when he kicks, and he will become exhausted from having to kick too many times. If the fin is too stiff, the diver will have to kick much harder in order to move forward, which will also tire him out. The answer would be to look for a fin that is not too stiff and not too soft.
  • When recommending open heeled fins it helps to advise customers to buy booties as well. Often divers need to walk a few meters before and after a dive and booties help to protect their feet.
  • If a customer has problem feet, open heeled fins and booties often work a lot better than the closed-heel options.
Maintenance

Advise your customers that the best way to maintain and clean scuba/diving gear is to soak it in a tub of fresh water for about an hour — and don’t spray silicon or anything else.

  • Be careful of cleaning equipment with a chlorine-based sanitizer — rather use non-chlorine based products that disinfect, but are not too powerful on the nose. Chlorine-based disinfectants destroy all the neoprene material used in diving masks as well as wetsuits and any material based equipment as well as buckles, etc.
  • Algae is a major problem on diving masks, so you have to soak the mask in a disinfectant in a dark room to kill all algae.

More about Duncan Pattenden

Duncan Pattenden started working in a hiking, climbing and diving shop called Varsity Sports Adventure Centre in 1983. When the store closed, he and co-worker Simon Larsen opened an outdoor shop in the Cape Town Medical Centre, with Pattenden looking after the diving side and Larsen specialising in hiking and climbing.

They also started importing Black Diamond gear and Larsen subsequently left to run the Ram Mountaineering distributorship.

After five years they were told that they were not medical enough and asked to leave the centre. Pattenden opened a shop inside City Rock, from where he sold and rented out equipment.

Orca Industries have been on their current premises in Claremont for the past 20 years, where they have become a destination store for divers and outdoor enthusiasts seeking camping equipment.

They not only service all diving equipment (e.g. regulators, buoyancy compensators, etc.) but have also gained the reputation of becoming one of the few shops a diver can take his gear to if he needs buckles replaced or gear serviced. “We have a workshop that stitches almost everything together and manufactures dive bags and AR vests (for deep diving),” says Pattenden.

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