Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Long Tail

This post really is about sailing even though you might not guess it in the first few paragraphs. So bear with me.

This week I have been reading The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. As Anderson explains at his website...

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of "hits" (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly-target goods and services can be as economically attractive as mainstream fare.

One example of this is the theory's prediction that demand for products not available in traditional bricks and mortar stores is potentially as big as for those that are. But the same is true for video not available on broadcast TV on any given day, and songs not played on radio. In other words, the potential aggregate size of the many small markets in goods that don't individually sell well enough for traditional retail and broadcast distribution may someday rival that of the existing large market in goods that do cross that economic bar.

For example, 25% of Amazon's sales are of products not available in offline retail stores and an astonishing 40% of Rhapsody's music sales are also of tracks not available in a typical record store.

Then it struck me that we see a similar phenomenon in the popularity of sailboat classes. Just look at the table on the Yachts and Yachting website of attendances at UK National Championships. At the top of the list are the "hits", the classes that turn out over 100 boats, Optimist, Topper, Laser Radial, Mirror, Enterprise and Firefly. But there is a huge long tail of over 200 classes down to such "niche" boats that I'd never even heard of before such as Pandora, St. Mawes One Design and Swordfish. And these are just the classes that bother to organize national championships. There are probably hundreds of smaller classes that never even make it on to this table.

So it seems that a surprisingly high percentage of sailors are not sailing the "hits" - the Lasers and Enterprises and Mirrors and so on. They are enthusiastically sailing in obscure niche classes and some of them are getting together and racing them in small fleets.

Of course the economic and social factors driving this must be very different from the ones that Anderson discusses in his book for such markets as online sales of books, digital music and video rentals. The classic "long tail" market is driven by near zero marginal costs of production, distribution and inventory which make it profitable for vendors to offer huge number of products that individually only sell in small numbers but collectively are significant parts of their businesses.

What is it that keeps the small sailboat classes alive and thriving (sort of)?

Part of it is geographical of course. Many of these smaller classes are confined to one country or one region in one country. They never achieve the world-wide distribution of the larger classes. No World Championships for these guys -- though they could organize an Intergalactic Championship. Presumably at least one local boat builder is finding it just profitable enough to build boats in the niche class. Or perhaps sometimes they are home built?

Another factor is that I am really comparing apples and oranges. Anderson's book is about current sales of products whereas the Y&Y regatta attendance table is about current usage of boats that may have been manufactured years ago. With loving care such boats will last decades and so the regatta attendance table may not be a reliable guide to the pattern of current sales of racing sailboats.

And then there is the "cult" factor. Niche boats have their wildly enthusiastic fans just as much as obscure garage bands do. Talk to an owner of a niche class sailboat and he will be rabid in his fervor and will explain why his particular class is far superior to any other. This can be expressed in negative as well as positive ways. The "why I hate Lasers" posts on forums and blogs are just as intense and fierce as some of the vitriol heaped on Britney Spears or Michael Jackson.

Yikes. I can't believe I really wrote that. I compared my pride and joy, my Laser, to two slimy, seedy, over-exposed, mass-market pop stars. Is that really how you Laser-haters see us Laser sailors?


Pat said...

It's not certain just how much the table means given that different classes likely have different criteria for their national championships. Some championships may be open to all comers, whereas others may have qualifying events.

In the USA, an Etchells skipper might have to be in the top 20% to sail in her national championships, but perhaps in some other classes or countries any old sailor could buy or charter a boat and pay the entry fee to have a national title shot.

So, which of the classes in the list were more selective and which weren't limiting entries at all?

Tillerman said...

That's interesting Pat. I'm not aware of any dinghy classes that have qualifying events for their national championships in either the UK or US.

Tim Coleman said...

Another thing to bare in mind is that alot of boats are not raced and the focus is more on cruising so the tables in question will not truly reflect the sales of boats or of the numbers being sailed.

A big 'problem' in the Enterprise fleet of the UK is that many prefer to just do club racing and so do not compete in national events. Thus the table does not reflect the true number of boats racing in the country.

Tim Coleman said...

Of course for those who are happy with thier club racing its no problem at all.

Tillerman said...

That's true Tim but I suspect that the relative sizes of fleets at the Nationals is a rough guide to the relative numbers of boats of each class raced in the country generally. For example, I would guess that there are many more Toppers than Europes in the UK, more Enterprises than Cherubs.

On the other hand, if some class appeals more to cruisers or day sailors, then the nationals attendance chart may well under-report their overall popularity.

But my point was not to draw attention to the popularity or otherwise of any individual classes, but to point out just how many folk are sailing classes other than the "big hits" like the Enterprise and Laser.

EVK4 said...

I'd blame sailing darwinism for a small part of this phenomenon. Local boat classes probably build up around the prevailing sailing conditions. Examples might be shoal draft boats for the Chesapeake that you will never see in San Francisco.

There must be dinghy examples as well. I'd be willing to bet that the Hoot will have a OD start on SF Bay within a few years but it will take much longer elsewhere. The Hoot is built here and solves a unique SF problem (too damned windy for a thousand controls and no beach launching access).

On another note, any other bloggers notice that you get a hit from NJ within seconds of posting on your blog?

Tim Coleman said...

Yes Tillerman I think that generally you are right and some classes are better at attracting big fleets for thier nationals than others.

And yes certain boats appeal for particular locations and conditions. eg Cats are better for sailing off beaches especially in big wave conditions as generally they don't need to put Centreplates down and are more stable but they are useless on confined waters were something like the Enterprise or the Firefly are perhapps more at home.
Fast boats generally need more space.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the Long Tail phenomenon has particularly been strong in the retail market, by making niche markets much more accessible, and much cheaper to access.

Carol Anne said...

The Long Tail applies not only to the boats themselves, but also to the aftermarket for those boats -- replacement parts, especially sails, but also including masts, booms, and specialized hardware, such as the clip at the top of an Etchells mast that holds the mainsail up so there isn't any strain on the main halyard that might distort the mast bend.

Thus, there may be boats that are no longer in production, but that have a small but loyal following, and those boat owners will be a market in the Long Tail.

Pat said...

Last night Larry showed me his ball mount halyard lock that replaces the t-bar. He says its much easier to use than the t-bar; he can even click it on a reach or with the vang on or tension otherwise on the mast. However, it needs to be installed professionally. Now as for what that has to do with class popularity... quien sabe?

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