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‘If You Cannot Sell Boats, You Need a New Hobby’

Nearly 80 percent of dealers reported retail growth in January, noting low inventories as a key factor in preventing even more selling
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In what is typically the slowest month of the year for boat sales, accounting for about 3 percent of annual receipts, almost 80 percent of marine retailers responding to the monthly Pulse Report survey reported retail growth during the month of January.

On top of strong consumer demand continuing into winter, the vast majority of dealers — 82 percent — reported that new-boat inventory was “too low,” with none of the 61 dealers saying that inventory was “too high.”

“It seems all you have to do is put a key in the front door, and people stampede in to buy boats,” said one dealer who responded to the survey, which is conducted by Baird Research in conjunction with the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Soundings Trade Only. “It’s a boat-buying frenzy like I have never seen in my 38 years in business.”

Another respondent put it more simply: “Everything sells. Right now, if you cannot sell boats, you need a new hobby.”

Sales continued to be driven by a number of factors, one being customers’ fear of missing out. “Customers know there is going to be a shortage of boats this spring, so they have been buying early,” one respondent said. Another added: “Customers fear not having a boat for the season.”

Inventory of new and used boats remained a chief concern for many dealers. “Holding a strong inventory level with something for everyone proves time and time again to be a large factor for success,” one dealer noted, with another stating that a “scarcity of products is driving early-season activity.”

Another commented: “No inventory is a problem right now. Our business would be up dramatically if our vendors were able to supply us boats.”

With boat shows by and large canceled, and with many show organizers moving to virtual events, dealers were asked to rate the effectiveness of virtual boat shows and other alternatives in terms of engaging with customers, driving leads and sales. Almost 90 percent categorized virtual events as less effective than in-person events, with about 7 percent seeing virtual show sales as equal to traditional boat show sales. Only 2 percent said virtual events were more effective than in-person boat shows.

However, with demand for boats remaining strong, one dealer commented, “Our virtual/in-showroom event was a huge success. The attendance wasn’t what we see at shows, but those that came were buyers.”

Dealer sentiment on current conditions rose to 87 in January from 71 in December, with the three- to five-year outlook increasing to 71, up from 53 in December. A score over 50 indicates a majority of dealers view conditions as strong or positive.

With powerboat sales seeing their best numbers in more than a decade — the National Marine Manufacturers Association reported that more than 310,000 powerboats were sold in 2020, a quantity not seen since before the 2008 Great Recession — most respondents said they expect strong retail demand and replenishment cycle issues to last well into 2022.

“At this point,” one dealer noted, “[there’s] not enough inventory to get us through the season. Hoping supply catches up with demand sometime this year.” 

This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.

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