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Upffront 2020 Foredeck Club SW LEADERBOARD

Can Upffront really become the Amazon.com of sailing systems?

by Andy Rice 4 Mar 01:00 PST
Facnor furler © Performance Classic Yachts

Upffront has created a few ripples in the marine industry since the company launched in 2015. However, the online supplier of performance hardware and rigging systems is looking to make much bigger waves in 2020.

The launch of a new website can be a massive undertaking for any company, but why should it be of interest to sailors or other people in the marine trade? Managing director Phil Anniss, who has been eyes down on relaunching the website for the past few months, thought it might be easier if he explained his grand plans to sailing journalist Andy Rice.

"The sailing world and the marine trade is a global business," explains Anniss, "but it's very fragmented. The marine industry is full of niche manufacturers and small service businesses who are very good at the technical side of what they do but simply lack the scale, time or manpower to effectively tell the world what they're doing. The online space in our industry is populated with hundreds of small, poorly maintained websites but there's no reliable, one-stop shop for sailors to find what they need for their boat. That's a problem for customers and it's a problem for the businesses that have products that they'd like to sell. This is the problem that we're looking to solve with the launch of our new Upffront website this year."

Phase 1 of the project has just gone live last month (January 2020) with a customer-facing website. Phase 2 comes later in the year with a dedicated B2B (business to business) portal. Creating an online hub of the scale and ambition that Anniss has in mind is proving to be an enormous challenge, but why even bother in the first place? "Our current system of distribution and sales is crumbling, and the marine industry has been very slow to adapt to the fact that the internet can provide a much more robust, efficient and customer-focused answer to the problem. Let's say you're the owner of a 40ft Beneteau and you want to buy a new furling system for your boat. If you go to your local chandlery, they might recommend that you buy a product from a particular manufacturer because they happen to be based down the road and they've got a good relationship with the salesman or local distributor. But they might be ignoring or even unaware of the fact that there is a far superior furling unit on the market, and possibly at a more competitive price. Look at how Amazon has revolutionised the way that we buy consumer goods online. That's what we want to do in our industry, whilst recognising the complexities of buying technical sailing products online."

Just as Amazon.com started out specialising in book sales and branched out into almost every kind of consumer product imaginable, so Upffront is looking to spread its wings from its high-tech rigging origins. The double 'ff' in the name comes from Future Fibres, the composite rigging market leader which is where Anniss worked for many years. While rigging and mast products will still form a very important part of the Upffront menu, the new website will be much broader in its reach as it seeks to fulfil that "sailing systems one-stop shop" ambition for the business.

One thing that will stay consistent with the old website is high quality technical information, Anniss promises. "When we asked our customers what they valued most about our previous website, it was the fact that we provide trustworthy, impartial, technical information. When you're buying equipment to give you a performance improvement but be safe, in a potentially hazardous environment, price is not the only buying factor. You're looking for reliability, durability as well as a competitive price. People have really appreciated that about our service since we launched in 2015 and we're looking to build on that reputation. As well as generating our own 'expert' information, which we source from some of the most experienced people in the market, we're also looking to implement a five-star rating system much as we're already familiar with from successful consumer sites like Amazon."

Where the comparison with Amazon runs dry is in addressing the highly specialised and technically demanding elements of such a complex sport as sailing. "We're not talking about basic consumer products for a mass market," says Anniss. "There's no getting away from the fact that we're in a niche, technical market with some unique challenges. We are investing in technology in order to equip customers with the right facts and specifications to make an informed, confident choice about what to buy for their boat. It will also put them in touch with the best local installation, service and support partners in their area," says Anniss, who believes that customers and marine businesses are passing - and missing each other - like ships in the night. "We're looking to put people together, to create connections so that customers can find the right product providers, and vice versa. We are working hard to ensure that our platform meets the needs of customers and businesses alike. Our platform will improve efficiency in terms of connecting sailors who want to buy stuff with businesses who have stock that they're looking to sell."

It's a simple enough proposition, but the creation of a platform that brings those two sides of the market together has been anything but straightforward. Having worked for the best part of a year in developing the new platform, Anniss and his colleagues at Upffront are excited to see how the marketplace responds to their new baby.

Has sailing's answer to Amazon arrived? Go to www.upffront.com and find out for yourself.

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