Divers who get in the water with more frequency than that of a “vacation diver” will most likely invest in their own gear. So you scrimp and save and visit your trusted LDS (local dive shop) and buy what your local experts recommend and … “It feels great, how did I ever dive with that crappy rental gear! “ Then you go about diving, you get some experience, you see new gear while on trips or while reading your dive magazines (think ScubaGadget.com :). You start to think, “my diving would be so much better if I had that drysuit, that better dive computer, those split fins. You pull our the credit card and then …“this new gear feels great, how did I ever dive with that beginner gear.” And often you may think, “If I would have known what I know now, I would have started with the new whatever and not spent the money on my old whatever.”
So why didn’t the experts at your LDS show you that “the whatever” first? In a few cases, certain dive gear is not good for the beginner diver. However, in most cases it is because your LDS may have various incentives and disincentives to direct you to only a limited range of choices.
Most local dive shops are small. While many can order wide variety of gear, most can afford only stock a very limited brands and sizes. Steve Sand of Sea and Sand n’ Scuba in Wisconsin said that if only stocked one of each size of one manufactures wetsuit (Pinnacles) he would have over 120 suits on hand.
Some stores even focus on only one brand like Mares or Aqualung for the major components of the dive kit. When we started to buy our first set of dive gear, one store we visited pushed only ScubaPro. They were not subtle in putting across the impression that we would be stupid if we did not go ScubaPro. We finally found and purchased our full set, from a store that helped us understand the pros and cons of each brand and product level. However, looking back even that store still only informs divers about a small spectrum of the dive industry’s wares. Even though most all of their customers are diving in cold water, neither the owner and manager dive a drysuit, so they never talk about those options and thus sell very few drysuits.
We are not saying that LDS staff should not have preferences for brands or products. We need experienced dive shop staff that can help us weed out crap gear. But it is clear that very few dive shop owners are consistently researching and testing a wide variety of gear. Only a small percentage attend DEMA or the other major dive shows and many that do, only go to meet with their personal product reps. They have an incentive to keep a narrow focus. Some manufactures require high sales quotas to for the dealer to keep there dealership. The agreements and sales incentives can make it very hard for dive shop owners to be ethically non-bias. This limited selection system has been good for dive shops and manufactures, at least up until now. But it is not good for the customers.
What’s a diver to do? Don’t let them keep you in the dark. Make a habit of talking with other divers about they gear they use and how they like it. Make time to stop in and visit any dive shops you pass near while on trips and errands. Get on the web and read what other divers have to say about it. ScubaBoard is a prime source to hear our praise for and the rants about gear. Attend your regional dive shows and demo days. You will find that there is a vast array of gear in any category that ranges from cheap to expensive, crap to quality. You will learn that some of the gear that is considered “tech” may be just as appropriate for novice and even safer and more comfortable than beginner gear.
Also ask questions that dig beyond how good is the gear. Ask about warranties and repairs. We have found some scuba manufactures that have great gear, but with lousy warranties. You can get stuck waiting weeks and months for replacements. Another little secret of the industry is that many scuba products, especially masks, fins and snorkels are made in China and the same exact product may be available at a wide range of prices. Regulators are also often private labeled and sold at a wide range of prices.
When browsing, think of the “total cost of ownership (TCO),” not just purchase price. Often “more expensive” gear can be much less costly over the life of the product and give great joy from day one. Drysuits are the great example. You can buy one drysuit that will give you lifetime of warm and comfortable diving or you can buy wet suit that will wear out every few years and end up costing your more over time than the drysuit.
If you broaden your horizons, you can switch the power balance. Become an educated consumer and you can save money, have great gear and not only support your local dive shop but also educate them.