What happened to conspicuous consumption?

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

A phenomenon has surfaced in this recession that I don’t recall seeing in any of the other declines during my 25-plus years in this topsy-turvy industry.

It first appeared on my radar at a boat show last fall, right after the markets began to tank. I was shooting the breeze with a sales guy for a boatbuilder when he told me how an interested buyer decided to pass on a boat out of concern for how the purchase might look to friends and neighbors who weren’t as fortunate as he. An experienced boater, the man was retired and well-off – and he really wanted the boat. But he decided to keep the one he owned for the time being to avoid the appearance of being, well, callous to their situation.

That was a single, small data point, and one which I didn’t pay much attention to until the recession deepened, and I started hearing variations on the story again and again.

Conspicuous consumption has never been a bad thing for this industry, but with unemployment in April hovering around 8.9 percent and more pain in the forecast, big spending, even for those who could still afford to, had lost a good bit of its cache. As the economy worsened, those people who still had the wherewithal to make large purchases became more sensitive to the kind of spending that could be viewed as over-the-top, especially those in high-profile positions – and particularly if they’ve had to lay off workers.

“It’s conspicuous non-consumption,” a semicustom builder told me. “It’s all about low profile.”

What’s considered “over-the-top?” Like it or not – fair or not – yachts fall into that category, especially for those who don’t share our passion. (Maybe affliction is a better word.) We’ve all heard the rhetorical cliché: Who really needs a boat?

While this heightened sensitivity over appearances – as well as over what “feels” like the right thing to do and what doesn’t – has probably had more impact on large yacht purchases, I’m not sure any sector is immune. As one industry veteran recently put it: “If I’d just bought a 32-footer, I wouldn’t be having a launching party or talking about it at a cocktail party.”

That doesn’t mean people aren’t buying boats. But those who are certainly aren’t crowing about it as much as they once might have. In this environment, claiming bragging rights at the neighborhood barbecue over the boat you just purchased might be seen as being in poor taste, especially if one of the regulars has just lost his job or home.

And who doesn’t know someone in that leaky boat?

Since February, we’ve been running a regular feature called “Today’s Boat Buyer” on our Web site. While there are buyers out there, it has been difficult to find ones who will talk on the record about purchasing a boat during this recession. Most politely decline, often through the dealer. You can sense their squeamishness over drawing attention to their good fortune right through the phone.

Clearly, the cultural prism through which certain behaviors (including spending) are deemed acceptable and others less so is continually shifting.

The New York Times, in a story last fall, talked about a recalibration of what is considered “acceptable consumerism.” Thrift was in, and profligate spending – especially flaunting your wealth or big-ticket purchases – was out, according to the cultural experts interviewed.

The affect of this shift on the purchase of boats and other luxury goods is not easy to measure. The impact certainly isn’t in the same category as those factors that are at the root of the problem: the credit crunch, the housing market collapse, unemployment, loss of consumer confidence and so on. It isn’t even close. But they are all a piece of the same puzzle. When all the pieces fit snugly together, the consumer buys the boat. But if even one piece is out of place these days, the sale easily can go south.

For every story of someone putting off a purchase out of concern for the way it might look, you hear one from the other side of the aisle. This one was told to me by a well-known boatbuilder:

A former chairman of a large, public company owns a 70-some footer, but wants one of the builder’s larger yachts. Problem is he can’t sell his existing one in this market. Solution: He orders the larger one anyway, deciding he’ll simply keep both yachts until things improve and he can sell the “smaller” one.

My own thoughts are this: Be sensitive, obviously, to the plight of others, but remember that if you decide to defer your dreams, you do so at a risk. No one knows for certain what’s around the next bend, how many hours are left on the engines.

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.

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