The Path to the Alpha Binoculars

By John E. Riutta | Contributing Editor

His alpha may not be the same as her alpha

vehicles: my wife’s sporty metal flake dark burgundy Scion X2 and my beige Toyota Prius. No matter what I did, I was never comfortable driving her car; not only did its sporty styling completely clash with my “doddering professor” persona, its “punchy” acceleration and go-cart handling was wholly unsuited to my zen-like driving habits. Needless to say, my wife had the exact, albeit reversed, problems whenever attempting to drive my delightfully understated Prius.

In many ways, binoculars are like automobiles – a wide range of models are available at widely varying price points, each featuring a different collection of functional as well as aesthetic features that makes it highly appealing to some while wholly unattractive to others. Yet how many times have you heard the term “alpha” binocular used to denote one of the select few that sit at the very pinnacle of the price scale - as if that binocular was the only reasonable choice to which every person on the planet should logically aspire?

This is not to say that the alpha binocular concept is mistaken; only that the original idea of what an alpha binocular is, has over the years been subsequently misinterpreted. Rather than being an objective standard, the concept of an alpha binocular, it should be understood, is highly subjective. Thus the alpha binocular for any particular person is the model that will best fit his or her needs as well as personal preferences and economic realities (an element that all-too-frequently is left out of the definition).

“But,” you may ask “wouldn’t everyone, if they could afford it, prefer to own one of the premium models from one of the top brands?” Not necessarily, and for some very good reasons. While most premiere-level binoculars unquestionably offer superb levels of both quality and performance, they may not be able to provide a particular - perhaps even idiosyncratic - key feature the person in question requires or prefers. Take my Prius, for example. It is not by any means a luxury vehicle. It doesn’t have a high performance engine, a walnut dash, or Spanish leather upholstery - all things I can very much appreciate and respect but none of which I would actually want for myself. I want a vehicle that gets 50 miles to the gallon and is, like myself quite frankly, a bit nerdy. Even if I had the money to buy a Jaguar or a Mercedes, I don’t think I would; it just wouldn’t “be me” - and “being me” is the true heart of what differentiates the alpha automobile, binocular, or any other product from all the rest in the eyes of a particular person.

This is why such an important aspect of mastering the sales of such an iconic piece of equipment to bird watchers as binoculars are, is being able to determine just what will constitute the alpha model for any one specific customer. Far more of an art than a science, being able to discover such an important piece of information often requires helping the customer to draw out of him or herself something perhaps not even consciously acknowledged. Thus consider the following three ideas when working with customers considering the purchase of a binocular.

Touch First, then Look

When it comes to field optics, almost all you ever hear discussed are points of optical performance. Not that this is an irrelevant topic when selecting a binocular, to be sure; however as the overall level of optical quality now available in the marketplace is reasonably good across a fairly wide swath of price points, matters of aesthetics, form, and function can - and should - be given greater consideration.

There was once a time when manufacturers of optical instruments - not just binoculars but cameras, microscopes, etc. -  put a great amount of thought into how their products looked. Indeed, some of the earliest models were more like finely crafted jewelry than rough-and-tumble sporting equipment. However, just like many items of outdoor equipment today, the mania for armoring and over-building has overshadowed the fact that most people will be using these items in a far less rigorous manner than might be expected of a U.S. Navy S.E.A.L. While some customers will be attracted to such a rugged aesthetic, others will not. Indeed, for some the thick armoring may be an actual hindrance to comfortable use of the binocular.

Then there is the fact that more than any other piece of equipment the binocular is the central tool for, as well as identifying badge of, a bird watcher. It is an item that they will use with a frequency far surpassing a hunter with his or her rifle or a golfer with any particular club. It is more akin to an artist’s favorite brush or a knitter’s best needles. Thus it must be more than simply utilitarian, it must resonate - as much as possible - with that person as an individual. In short, it must be both physically comfortable to use as well as visually appealing if one is to be truly satisfied with it.

Therefore, as contradictory as it seems, encourage your customers to look at, and hold any binocular being considered before ever looking through it. As bizarre as it may seem, how much a person likes the physical appearance of a binocular, and how comfortably he or she is able to hold and manipulate its controls, will influence how well that person perceives its optical system to work.

“Bracket the Aperture”

When photographers aren’t quite certain just what level of exposure will best suit a particular image they are trying to capture, they will record an image at what they think the right setting should be but then also record one below and one above it in case their original judgement was incorrect. Similarly, when working with a customer in selecting a binocular, in addition to the one determined to be the most likely “best fit,” be sure to offer bracket models for consideration. These brackets should be determined by the primary question the customer seems to be considering. If they’re unsure of magnification, bracket an 8x with a 6x or 7x and a 10x. If it’s objective, bracket a 42mm with a 32mm and a 50mm. If it’s price, bracket a model between one that’s a bit less and one a bit more expensive. Should an upper or lower bracket not be available, at least use one that will ensure a noticeable differentiation between options.

Indeed, it is this very differentiation that can really help to bring out true preferences as opposed to assumed ones; for while we all have in mind what we think we prefer, often we hold those ideas simply due to the fact that we’ve never considered alternatives. Many 10x binocular users think they need 10x binoculars to see every last detail of a bird - yet they may never have taken the time to discover if the wider field and brighter image offered by a similar 8x model might not be more to their liking. Thus just as the photographer thinks he or she may know the setting that will best capture the beauty of the image, by bracketing the aperture they are presented with alternatives they may in fact find preferable to their original assumption.

Plant a Seed for the Future

Finally, unless you think that the customer has truly reached their alpha binocular level, helping the customer to begin imagining what their next binocular might be will benefit not only them but your business as well. As specific models come and go - even entire brands in some circumstances - it is better in this case to think in terms of particular features rather than individual models. Perhaps the customer really liked an HD lens model they examined but could not justify the expense for their present purchase. Maybe they still think a 10x best suits their present needs but have come to understand that, as their eyes change with age, at some point they’ll need to switch to an 8x model.
These are the types of seeds to plant that will eventually grow into another sale someday - and while it is not guaranteed that they will transact that sale with you, the more of a connection you can make, the more you can establish in the customer a feeling of respect, trust, and loyalty for your own business, and the better your chances are for them to return to you when the time comes for them to take that next step toward their own alpha binocular.