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Customer Connections

Dealers share some of the ways they keep in contact with their customers during the slowing retail off-season
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Marine dealers saw flat retail trends during the past month, with 43 percent of dealers reporting growth versus 39 percent reporting retail declines. This is not unexpected: Research shows that September typically represents less than 6 percent of annual retail sales.

Such were some of the findings of the most recent Pulse Report, the monthly survey conducted by Baird Research in conjunction with the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Soundings Trade Only.

This month’s survey asked dealers how they maintain interest in boating during the off-season, and how their dealership engages with boaters outside of the retail selling season. “We are telling customers if they want a boat anytime next year, they must order now,” one dealer responded. “We are also concentrating on service. We offer specials so customers can have their boat serviced while we have the capacity and parts are still available.” Another said, “Service work gives us an opportunity to still engage with our boaters in the off-season.”

Other ways of staying in touch with customers included attending boat shows and fishing tournaments, creating in-store promotions and offering educational events and seminars. Christmas cards, social mixers, emails, texts, newsletters and calling customers by phone also made the list.

“We are actively promoting ordering boats with a message that ‘in-stock’ boats will not be the norm for the 2022 season, and the only way to ensure a boat for the upcoming season is to reserve a slot now,” one dealer said.

Another dealer said, “Sounds brash, but there is no need to maintain interest right now, as interest has never been higher and is continuing to grow.” One dealer simply stated, “We don’t have an off-season in Florida.”

Dealers indicated that the economy positively impacted retail demand in September, but that they experienced headwinds from various sources, including a dearth of new products, sluggish trade-in activity, lackluster OEM promotions and government action or inaction.

Continued robust demand and extremely lean inventories were also reported, with 99 percent of dealers saying new-boat inventory is too low. Same for used-boat inventory, with 85 percent of dealers saying levels are too low. Retail sentiment declined to near neutral (49 versus 58 a month prior) amid frustration about inventory availability. The three- to five-year outlook also declined, to 44 from 54 last month.

One dealer said, “Everyone has an excuse for not being able to get product. Every day there is a new item causing the delay. Manufacturers say they are filling sold orders first. That is great, but some dealers are getting stock units for sale in inventory on their website.”

Another said, “Supply shortages and back orders of parts made it difficult for us to make our customers happy. Often had to wait weeks for parts or shop alternative sources like eBay, etc., to find the parts we needed. Staffing is a continual problem in our area. We often can’t even get people to apply, even though we pay competitive salaries, including benefits. We had to cut back on some areas of service because we can’t find qualified technicians.”

At the same time, consumer interest in boating remains high, with dealers selling production slots and preselling boats yet to be built. The urgent need for inventory is good news for marine OEMs and suppliers looking forward to 2023 — an extremely bullish position, particularly when dealers stay in touch with prospective customers over time.

One of the only indications that dealers gave about waning consumer demand was a respondent who said, “Unfortunately, if the price of fuel continues to rise, it will price some newer boaters out of the industry. The last two seasons have seen a lot of new boaters; however, fuel prices were low. The impact of rising costs will see a lot of those new boaters finding different, less-expensive hobbies.” 

This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.

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