Article & Photos By John Christopher Fine
John Shouk operated Cougar Sports in New York City’s Bronx for many years. His brother was affiliated with Scubapro sales. The store sold Scubapro dive equipment as well as archery and hunting gear for sportsmen. Tank fills were fifty cents. When they went up to seventy- five I complained to John. I was regaled with a concerted lecture about what it cost to keep their store open and costs of delivering clean air to fill tanks, albeit Bronx air.
John’s principal complaint was that divers didn’t support his store. In those days hardware stores and general sporting goods emporiums sold dive equipment at prices far below what an independent dive shop could offer customers. Volume sales meant bigger discounts at wholesale. Profit margins could be reduced because of volume sales. Scubapro at the time would not sell to wholesalers for resale, only to their affiliated dive shops. Other dive equipment manufacturers had no such scruples. Hardware stores did not have service departments. Equipment had to be sent in to manufacturers or taken to full service dive shops. Most hardware stores did not have compressors to fill tanks.
With the advent of Internet sales of all manner of dive equipment, this former dive shop owner’s complaint has become a stark reality.
“Three dive stores have closed here in the last year,” Tom Muscatello said. Tom and his wife Debbie own and operate a family business in Boynton Beach, Florida. Their Boynton Beach Dive Center is a full service dive shop only two blocks from the municipal marina where dive boats are based that offer trips to some of the most beautiful reefs in the world.
What Tom Muscatello said was clear when I was diving further north and wanted to fill my tanks at Divers Direct off Northlake Boulevard. Gone, closed, finished. This gigantic dive store was no more in the Northlake location. Wet Pleasures in Lantana, Florida, only a few miles from Tom and Debbie’s scuba center, just closed. This full service dive store was not only a repair and fill station they also offered hydrostatic testing of tanks. Another dive store nearby folded. Bricks and mortar retail stores with high rent, taxes, municipal surcharges, anti- business attitudes of many cities and towns, insurance, commercial rates for telephones and utilities do not provide an even playing field against internet sales of equipment.
It is not possible to compete with an internet sales business from a bricks and mortar small dive business. Not only don’t they get the same quantity discounts from manufacturers, they cannot possibly put out cash to stock items in quantity. When a customer buys a piece of dive gear it often must be ordered from the manufacturer or wholesaler. This entails less discount since it is only one item and shipping costs prevail. If the dive store charges more for the item than prevailing prices, their customer clicks it on their little phone, sees the internet price and there is no sale.
Mel Murphy owned a dive store in Scranton, Pennsylvania for many years. A customer came in and inquired about dry suits. Mel spent two hours with the customer. The man tried them on, got advice, took Mel’s time. When he was done and decided upon a dry suit that he wanted to buy the man had the audacity to tell Mel: “I’m going to buy it on the internet. It’s a lot cheaper.”
The customer, so called, didn’t have to walk out so much as being thrown out by an infuriated dive shop owner. Two hours wasted, suits tried on, fitted, advice given for free and the ill- mannered churl didn’t even have the decency to excuse himself without insulting Mel whose spirit was broken by this event. The use of stores to try on and select equipment, then for customers to buy the item cheaper on the internet or from large discount operators, is quite prevalent today.
A dive boat fleet captain put it succinctly when he said long ago: “Divers need three things: instruction, tank fills and a means to get to the dive site. All of these the dive industry sells off too cheaply.” Perhaps, perhaps not. For the kid that forked out an extra quarter for tank fills it was a third more than before. For dive stores affiliated with diver certification agencies there are often signs outside shops that proclaim ‘Learn To Dive $99.’ No instructor can teach a student to dive for $99. My student kits ordered from my certification agency cost $50 each, the certification card is now $20 plus tax and shipping.
What those shops hope to do is entice students in, offer quickie courses in front of a video screen, then insist that they purchase equipment from them. To get fully equipped today a diver must consider an outlay of about $2,000. Dive stores push what they are able to buy at great discounts as specials at trade shows. If they buy these specials then greater discounts prevail therefore greater profits are possible.
In general tanks now cost about $5 for air fills, likely $12 to $15 for Nitrox. Nitrox has been a big profit enhancement for dive stores. Nitrox enables a quickie ‘back and forth pick up the new load of divers’ for busy water taxi dive boat operators.
What is required is loyalty to local dive stores. Without them there will be no convenient way to fill tanks or to get equipment serviced or even to buy or replace that broken strap or rent equipment for a traveling friend.
The day of the independent dive instructor has waned. In the old glory days of the YMCA scuba program local Y’s offered scuba courses for about $25 for members and $35 for non-members. I was a volunteer, never paid by the Y. Certification cards were paper and cost twenty- five cents. I can’t remember what my instructor renewal card cost early on but it was not much.
Like big government that feeds on itself, reasonable costs were before lumbering bureaucracies with fat behinds sat at desks and obtained large salaries for pitiful work. In the end the National YMCA scuba program fell into ruins. With it went my 12 session courses with a full weekend of open water work. Any student could attend subsequent courses for free and were encouraged to participate, even help others, in the course. Many veteran instructors lament the passing of the disciplined course and a fraternal long-lasting friendship and mentoring that developed between instructor and student.
It is not gone, it is rare. Profit has become a prevailing motive in a competitive world. Dive instructional agencies in the US are often antagonistic one to the other. The US is not organized on a government system. In many countries scuba instruction and licensing is a function of the state. In the US private certification agencies have taken up the responsibility for training, licensing instructors and issuing certificates. Depending on the agency, and many new ones have proliferated over time, their certification cards are recognized by dive operators that take people out on trips as well as by dive stores that fill tanks and sell life support dive equipment.
I have taken thousands of people diving. Their certification card is not as important as their experience. There is no substitute for experience in scuba diving. Basic training, even certification at the instructor level, is meaningless without having experience in various diving situations. It has not been so long ago when a diver could go from novice to instructor after twelve dives. It has been calculated that the average US diver, one considered a very active diver, dives eight times in a year. Many can only get away on vacations to the tropics. Skills get dulled as in any other pursuit. Easily remedied with a careful instructor that shepherds and guides the divers. Uncertain skills, unpracticed techniques, even a broken or leaking mask can lead an inexperienced diver into trouble underwater.
In France the initial diver certificate was issued after forty dives. In the French Navy a diver was not considered capable until three hundred dives were obtained. I’d say that is about right. Dive operators today often prefer to look at a diver’s log book rather than the certification card. Some operators simply see themselves as a water taxi. although many take their responsibility seriously.
Back to the independent instructor: long ago I would be propositioned by dive stores. I was to be a shill directing my students to their shops. I was offered commissions, freebies, everything to entice me to bring cash customers into their shops. I would simply provide students with a list of dive shops in the area. Those that offered me commissions I asked to please give that discount to my students directly. I took nothing from them, I was uncompromising in that regard. I paid for my rental tanks that I used in my classes. I did not, however, refuse free fills offered as a courtesy by my friends. That is how I considered them, friends. The shop owners, by and large, were divers themselves. They had enthusiasm of discovery of the underwater world as motivation for getting into the dive business.
One well known instructor, who has been elected president of a major US certification agency, remains independent. This instructor caters to wealthy people that want custom tailored dive training and experiences. The instructor charges fees accordingly, pays boat charters out of his fees, and insures careful shepherding of his rich clientele. Even working this way it is still difficult to earn a sufficient living to support a family. The independent instructor must have a second means of support aside from teaching diving. The store instructor works on salary and commission. Commission on courses taught shared with the shop and on equipment sales. Salary comes from hours worked in the store, filling tanks or in some cases servicing equipment if the instructor has requisite skills.
Consider as well the advent of insurance requirements established by US dive certification agencies. The agency itself buys its own insurance paid for with fees charged the instructor. It could theoretically be possible that organizations may get benefits or commissions from an insurance broker it becomes affiliated with. Agencies require its members to pay $550 to 750 a year to insure the agency as well as the instructor against lawsuits for up to $1 million. Is this legal? It has not been challenged to my knowledge.
In other fields, medical, legal, construction, insurance may or may not be required by the government. If so it is not usually geared to protect the government that licenses the individual or company. It is only designed to protect the consumer.
Today many medical practitioners do not buy malpractice insurance. They claim the fees are too high. Instead they make patients sign away their rights to sue and inform patients they have no liability insurance. If sued it is unlikely, with various protections and exemptions, that the patient will obtain much from a medical mal-practitioner whose real assets are protected.
One major diver certification agency used to allow instructor members exemption from the insurance requirement if they could show $1 million in assets. A little too optimistic for dive instructors. Yet fees charged for dive instructor renewals, for teaching materials and student certifications as well as upwards of $750 in insurance drives independent instructors to work with dive shops. This can be a good combination if….
If…Here’s another actual example: one very careful and capable instructor complained that he was under too much pressure from his dive shop owner to push students through. He insisted on taking as much time as was necessary with them to insure they were comfortable with all their water work and skills. The instructor didn’t like the pressure. He taught at his own pace and refused to heed‘ hurry them up, get them to buy equipment, go on to the next’ philosophy the shop insisted on.
There is a delicate balance between dive shops and dive instructors. It must be based on mutual respect. Honest loyalty is important as is fair dealing with the trust dive students place in their teacher. A relationship based solely on commerce is often forsaken. A relationship based on trust, confidence and friendship leads to long term customer loyalty. Dive shops that set aside space for customer lounges with coffee, that offer programs and lectures, that create an atmosphere of being a member of a special club, that take divers on vacation trips make diving special thus create a bond with customers.
Skip Commagere, owner of Force-E Scuba with full service dive shops in Boca Raton, Pompano Beach and Riviera Beach, Florida, is one of the nation’s premiere retailers. With a modern shop right on the west side of the Blue Heron Bridge Force-E can service all diver’s needs as they dive one of Florida’s most popular destinations just across the bridge. Skip makes it a point to give back generously to the dive community. His shops host lectures and programs. They have recently printed complimentary tide tables for the Blue Heron Bridge and offer parking permits for those wanting to make night dives at the bridge where night time parking is restricted. Skip and his staff work with many dive vessels in the area. Skip and his well trained staff can provide information about local dive boat operators in the area and about sites of interest. For any that may be diving at the Blue Heron Bridge, Force-E offers tank rentals and fills along with dive flags and all manner of equipment for sale or rent.
Yes, there may be a short term saving buying a dry suit or other dive equipment on line. The expertise and caring concern of conscientious store owners like Tom and Debbie Muscatello cannot be replaced. If ever service is needed, if the defective item needs to be returned to a manufacturer people like Tom and Debbie often give free loan of equipment until the item is repaired. This kind of personal service is tantamount in value to much more than what was saved on the initial purchase price.
Diving is a lifelong learning experience to be shared among people of common interests. In all of this dive stores play a central role, a pivotal role, keeping divers involved.
Thanks for reading…
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