“Ship day or sh-t day?” It’s up to the retailers in tourist ports to decide

I first heard the phrase “ship day or shit day?” in the Port of Papeete in Tahiti. I’ve heard it many time since spoken by retailers with cafes, bars, gift shops, swimwear shops and convenience stores within a two-kilometre walk of cruise ship terminals where cruise ships dock, or the smaller jetties where their tenders dock. I’ll explain the thoughts behind the phrase later.

But picture if you will, the time just before sunrise in a coastal port. You see either a beautiful, big, silent, graceful ten-floor-high cruise ship carefully docking, or you see and hear chugging towards you a flotilla of small, ugly, white and orange water beetles belching diesel smoke. 

It still amazes me that the financially successful cruise ship industry can each year, design and launch billion-dollar cruise ships with architectural grace and still have such ugly tenders. Surely they can spend a bit of money on designing equally beautiful boats that can act as lifeboats and be an elegant tender too. I digress.

On board the cruise ship are between 2000 and 5000 shoppers who have been up since 5am and are awaiting departure in hallways and public areas. They want to get off and spend their time and money in stores within two kilometres of the wharf or jetty. They have enough time and more than enough money to spend.

If they are lucky, they will only queue for an hour before they walk down a ramp and onto the shoreline. If they are unlucky, they will have to wait 90 minutes to be ferried in a wet, bumpy, crowded, hot and smoky lifeboat with crew who have great seamanship skills and zero customer service skills. So they’re a little grumpy, and many have had bad shopping experiences in many ports — poor service, hiked up prices and unfriendly sales staff.

These are the shoppers that retailers in ports either love or hate and it’s in the mindset of the arriving shoppers, the waiting retailers and local government that you see both good and very poor retailing.

But that’s just my personal view. Let’s look at a piece of research on the economic impact of cruise ships and their shoppers on ports. In this case Bar Harbor, Maine, New England on the US north east coast. The extracts below are from a paper called Economic Impact of Cruise Ship Passengers visiting Bar Harbour (Maine) in 2016, written by Todd Gabe, Dominic Gayton, Patrick Robinson, James McConnon and Sean Larkin:

• The cruise ship passengers visiting Bar Harbor are highly educated and affluent, and mostly aged 50 years and older;
• The passengers surveyed spent an average of $US108 —and $US74 of this went on expenses other than cruise-line sponsored tours. Apart from such tours, most of the money was spent on meals and drinks, clothing and general souvenirs;
• Almost all of the passengers surveyed (96%) went to at least one store or restaurant/bar, while a third of passengers went to 10 or more places. More than three-quarters of spent money in one to four stores and restaurants/bars, and about 13% made purchases in five to nine stores and restaurants/bars.
• Excluding the time on tours, the survey found around half of the passengers explored the local area for at least four hours.
• The estimated annual economic impact — including multiplier effects — of these visitors was $20.2 million in local spending, 379 jobs (full- and part-time, and seasonal) and $5.4 million in labour income; and
• The Town of Bar Harbor (the local government which legislates and polices retail trading laws) collected $686,472 in passenger fees in 2016.

If 3000 wealthy shoppers arrived at a major shopping mall and spent almost $250,000 in four hours, the retailers would think they’d won the lottery. But when they arrive in a port, many retailers don’t think that way.

I’ve been in ports where a small coffee went up from $3 to $5 for the day. Meals and drinks attract a “ship day” 10% surcharge, just like a public holiday. But I’ve also been in ports where “ship day specials” are advertised in stores and side walk interrupters are placed for the day, helping visiting shoppers navigate the area and offering gifts with purchase to passengers who walk off the beaten track to shops located off the main street. One lady told me that the first time she put the sidewalk interrupter down on the main street, 200 metres from her store, a council employee came and threatened to fine her. She said: “Town council charges the cruise ships a fee to visit, so why can’t I put my sign up for the days they’re in town?” They still let her do it four years on. 

A few things businesses need to know about ship shoppers and their retailing needs:

• Ninety-nine percent have never set foot in your town or store before. They don’t even know whether to turn left or right down the main street. Help them find you online, in print, with flyers, or with side walk interrupters;
• They are time poor and cash rich. Think of them as classic impulse or convenience store shoppers;
• Greet and welcome them to the town. They are not difficult to spot! The welcome, “Hi my name’s Jenny. Welcome to Bar Harbor”, really matters;
• Put ‘Ship Day’ specials out for them and be clear that your prices don’t go up on that day;
• Offer ship discounts upon presentation of their lanyard and cabin key card;
• Put your best selling items to the front and merchandise them as well as you can. Be fun and creative;
• Let them know “other passengers bought these”;
• Make payment easy by allowing any cash, currency or card; and
• Wrap their purchases for ease of carrying back to the ship and getting through the very scary “scan for grog” process as they re-board.

My belief is that “ship day” is a day to look forward to if you’re a retailer or visiting shopper. However, if you think it’s going to be “shit day” do us all a favour and leave your shop closed for that day.

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