DEALER WEEK: Concerns About Boater Retention


First-time boat buyers are in decline, and retention rates are shrinking, according to research presented at MRAA’s Dealer Week in Tampa, Fla.

Despite a solid recovery in boat sales since the Great Recession, averaging 7 percent per year since 2012, a longer look may be catching the industry by surprise, said Phil Smoker of Smoker Craft, who presented the statistics in one of the 10 x 10 talks with leaders from inside and outside the industry.

“I think we were all excited about the rebound from the recession and increase in per unit dollar sales, and thought other factors were contributing to the aging of the boating public,” Smoker said.


First-time boat buyers in 2000 comprised 42 percent of sales. Last year that number had fallen to 31 percent. Perhaps of greater concern is retaining first-time buyers. InfoLink data looked at 380,000 first-time buyers in 2013 and found that by 2018, 39 percent were out of boating.

The reasons included costs that the buyer didn’t anticipate, such as storage and maintenance, in addition to boating knowledge and skills. Those who stayed in boating said the better the experience they had, the less cost had an effect, with higher perceived value.

Smoker challenged dealers to rewrite the meaning of affordability to include creating opportunities for customers to use their boats. “We need to sell the experience,” he said.

Customers told researchers that hands-on, on-the-water training was a big plus in retention and suggested that the industry bundle maintenance and/or storage in the cost of the boat or as an upsell as part of a wider effort at cost transparency.

Smoker said his group of companies is working with dealer bases on a new incentive called Turn and Earn, which increases dealer discounts by ordering specific factory-packaged models.

The concern extends to first-time buyers of used boats. Sales figures showed a direct correlation between the age of the used boat and sharper declines in retention.

Dealer Week wraps up its four-day run on Wednesday.


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