Wetsuits: Consumer Direct or In-Store?

Don’t ask me which sales channel, consumer direct or in-store, is better. Ask me what quality of service is required before a wetsuit seller deserves to get your business.

Here is a list of imperatives. A wetsuit seller needs to check these boxes before that seller – whether consumer direct, and online retailer, or a brick and mortar retailer – can rightly claim it deserves your business. This list is in order of importance:

A Full Size Run of Wetsuits: with back-ups in the important sizes. Why? Because of the return policy I’ll describe below and implicit in this is the need to exchange the wetsuit for another size. No can do if the seller doesn’t have the other size. Don’t assume that all direct sellers beat all brick and mortar in inventory. Nytro, TriShop in Texas, Inside Out Sports, TriSports in Tucson, Bonzai Sports in DC, shops like these have thousands of wetsuits in stock right now. When I was a manufacturer each of my biggest half-dozen retailers had more inventory on hand than I did.

And they need to be current wetsuits! Wetsuits have a shelf-life. If they're more than a few months old you warrant a discount. If they're marketed as current but they're not, pass this seller by and look for one with current stock.

Speaking of “when I was a manufacturer” above is a collage of images from the early days. Far right is Mark Montgomery (Monty on our Reader Forum) and this was the state of our wetsuit "expertise" 5 or 6 years after I started (we had our patterns dialed in pretty well by then). All the other photos are from the very beginning, when I enlisted the opinions of then-pro-triathletes Mike Fillipow and Tom Gallagher. This was the very first test of my new wetsuits beyond my own swimming in them, in 1986, at the Belmont Shore pool in Long Beach, California, before I had a company, before I started selling them.

Return Policy: When I developed these wetsuits you see above in 1987, people actually wanted to buy them. I felt we had to put a policy in place that would comfort our customers during the transaction. We thought a no-questions-asked 14-day money back return guarantee would do it. And yes, you could return it after you swam in it. Does this mean technically you could buy it, swim your one wetsuit race of the year in it, and return it for a full refund? Yes. During the 1990s we made and sold about 14,000 wetsuits every year. Perhaps 6 were returned each year for a refund. A good wetsuit maker isn’t going to get scammed. Its liberal return policy is a kind of marketing, worth more than any other marketing. The good wetsuit makers look at an extra-liberal return policy as a marketing expense.

Comprehensive Warranty: “If it fails for any reason; if the dog eats it; if your car runs over it; we’ll repair or replace it within 2 years of purchase.” That was the text of an ad we ran back in the '80s. That’s the kind of warranty you need. Of course it was easy for us because I had my own factory 30 feet from my desk. We could repair wetsuits. What about wetsuit companies that don’t have their own factory in the U.S.? Not my problem. Not your problem. Their problem. That’s still the warranty you need or, at least, a warranty that is civil, reasonably liberal, and that makes you feel inoculated against a transaction-gone-bad.

Technical Expertise In the Use of Wetsuits: The need for this depends on the user, but I place this high on the list because of so many people I see at races who don’t put their wetsuits on right, don’t pull them up, split the wetsuit right up the crotch, blow the wetsuit out at the calf, lose mountains of time getting out of their wetsuit. You need somebody selling you the wetsuit who’s versed in how to use the wetsuit.

Price: One obvious value of a direct seller is price. Just, it’s fiction to think there’s not a cost associated with the task of selling. Here’s a simple case in point: If a direct seller sells via its Amazon store, the all-in cost of that may be 10 percent of the sale (meaning, the cost directly to Amazon). That might be a quarter to a third of the margin a brick and mortar store makes. By the time a direct seller tabulates all the costs of being the retailer, the true savings on a value basis might be 15 to 20 percent. Still, if you can get the same value from a direct seller and save 20 percent why not? Just know that it’s a complete fiction to think you’re getting a product for half the cost because you bought it from a direct seller. If you fall for that one you deserve what you get.

Selection: There is only one place you can get a true selection, and that is from a mega online seller of wetsuits, like Just Wetsuits or Trisports.com, or Nytro.com, or similar. How important is selection? I placed it where I did (lower down on the list of imperatives) for a reason. I have one of every wetsuit made. If you took them all away except a blueseventy Helix I’d be happy. Orca? Happy. Roka? Happy. De Soto? Happy. Xterra? Happy. There’s not a bad wetsuit among them along with others I haven’t mentioned. The notion of selection only makes sense if the person manning the telephone or the online chat can help you differentiate and that’s not likely. Yes, as I move through the discussion of these wetsuit companies one by one I’ll draw distinctions, but an online wetsuit seller really needs to make a case for why selection generates value, otherwise it’s just decision overload.

In sum: What is important beyond all else is protection against the transaction-gone-bad. Return policy, warranty, quick resolution of a problem (wrong size, ripped wetsuit), help with how to actually use this swimming tool, these are much more important than the decision of direct seller versus brick and mortar retailer. I would much rather buy online than from a brick and mortar store that didn’t have full size runs. I’d much rather buy from brick and mortar if I could try the suits on and talk to someone who really could help me with the care and feeding of my wetsuit, how to take it on and off.

The moral: Don’t assume a brick and mortar store automatically delivers a better, safer transaction. Don’t assume a direct seller automatically delivers better value. The above is the list of imperatives regardless of the sales channel. Inquire in advance before you patronize any wetsuit seller operating in any sales channel Bluntly ask these questions! What is your return policy? Require a granular description. Do you have full size runs? No gaps?

Come to think of it, the points above are applicable to most all your non-commodity commercial transactions.