Boat Locker sets sail from Westport for more space, less cost
Published 8:11 pm, Friday, July 4, 2014
After more than 20 years in the business, Scott Hardy was tired of showing his boats to customers in the rain and snow on Post Road East.
"In the wintertime, we put on a coat, two coats," he said. "They're cold. I'm cold. Their kids are cold. And they don't buy. That's not how a successful car dealer works."
So Hardy began looking for a place to relocate the Boat Locker, the 57-year-old Westport business he purchased in the late-1980s.
"I told my wife I want a showroom," he said. "My customers deserve better. And I didn't want to compromise on the space."
In all the time he was looking, though, he never thought he'd find exactly what he was looking for in Bridgeport.
"I walked in and I was like, `Wow, this is it,' " Hardy said, standing in the middle of the Boat Locker's new home at 706 Howard Ave. in that city.
All around him, rigged sailboats and sailing kayaks are on full display under the natural sunlight beaming down from skylights placed all along the length of the building. All that was missing was the water.
The decision to move the business from its home base in Westport wasn't taken lightly, said Hardy's wife, Mary Ann. "It was a huge decision, but the ultimate goal was to showcase the boats -- masts up and sails up," she said. "This is very, very different than where we were. It was a big leap. But we love it."
In mid-May, the couple moved their kayaks, sailboats and stand-up paddleboards into the 8,000-square-foot showroom with 28-foot ceilings. The space also provides plenty of space to display their boating accessories, shorts, life jackets, hats, beach bags and swim shirts of all sizes.
And it will allow them to display their boats rigged indoors year round.
"Fall sailing is big in yacht clubs," Mary Ann Hardy said. "And even in the winter -- it's called frostbiting when they go out during the winter months in dry suits."
Scott Hardy said he is now excited about the ability to expand and grow his business in an economy much better than it was just five years ago.
At that time, the economy took a dive and so did the business' annual revenues. "We were trying to establish the brand in the face of a down, pathetic market," Hardy said. "People just weren't buying boats for two years."
With current annual revenues of $2 million, the company is back on solid footing, but not doing nearly as well as it was a decade ago.
Besides providing a fresh start, the Bridgeport site also came at a bargain. The rent is significantly less than what the business was paying for a retail storefront and warehouse in Westport.
"It was just a warehouse, a shell. A place to store the boats," he said. "The rent was fair for Westport, but too difficult for my business at this particular juncture. It was doable in '05, '06, '07, but then everything fell apart."
While some customers have embraced the new Boat Locker's new location, others don't want to make the trip. Those that do, however, understand the importance of a showroom right away.
"When they walk in and see the boats rigged on display, they get it," he said.
"It's great to see all the products displayed and gives the kids a real life reference point as far as the products out there," he said.
The neighborhood has also been welcoming, said Mary Ann Hardy. "The neighborhood has been really nice," she said. "Everybody has been stopping by and saying hi."
City officials have visited the business as well.
"The Boat Locker's move to Bridgeport after decades in lower Fairfield County is a great sign of the opportunity that exists in Bridgeport for businesses looking to expand or move," said Karen DelVecchio, executive vice president of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. "It is a win-win for everyone -- the Boat Locker, their customers, the neighborhood, and the city -- and we are happy to have them here."
"In Bridgeport, we have established an environment that allows small businesses to grow and thrive," said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. "We're thrilled to welcome the Boat Locker, a small business with a proven track record to Bridgeport."
Hardy said there are few business in the region that sell boats and a wide array of accessories. "There are very few people that do what we do," he said. "It's a very unique, niche business."
A newer type of boat in the business sold at the Boat Locker is the peddling kayak, which allows a person to use their feet to navigate the kayak, instead of rowing.
"You can get a paddling kayak anywhere," but peddling boats are harder to find, he said. These boats are good for fishermen because it frees up their hands to handle the rod.
"Half of our kayak business are the fishing guys," he said. "The other half is just the recreation crowd that wants to go out and have a good time."
Tandem kayaks, which seat two people, are also more popular than single kayaks.
"We sell fun," Hardy said. "We sell things that help people escape. Part of the mission here is to reinvent the business. We'll get back (to the former success) again, but we have a lot of work to do."
For more information, call 203-259-7808 or visit www.boatlocker.com.