March Registrations Reflect Pandemic Crisis

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New-boat registrations dropped 16 percent in the main powerboat categories and nearly 18 percent overall in March, as businesses reacted to the coronavirus pandemic.

Registrations were off just 0.4 percent year-to-date in the main powerboat categories following a strong January, February and first half of March, according to Statistical Surveys, a Michigan firm that tracks new registrations. The data come from 22 states, including Florida, representing about 42 percent of the overall market.

“We were off to a fabulous start, and then the coronavirus happened,” says Statistical Surveys sales director Ryan Kloppe. “This is what we’re going to be seeing for the next couple of months. This is going to be the new normal for registration data.”

March historically represents around 9 percent of annual boat sales and the first month of the six-month, key selling season, which typically accounts for about 78 percent of annual new-boat sales, according to the firm B. Riley Financial.

Pontoons fared best in the main powerboat categories, dropping nearly 10 percent but still up 0.3 percent year-to-date. Aluminum fishing boats declined 12.7 percent compared with March 2019 but were also up year-to-date, at 3.7 percent.

Fiberglass outboard boats declined nearly 20 percent year-over-year and were off 2.3 percent year-to-date. The 31- to 40-foot cruiser segment declined from 48 units to 26 but was still up 5 percent for the year. Yachts between 41 and 65 feet declined more than 67 percent, from 67 units to 22.

Much of the industry expected to see these sales trends continue, as the impact of coronavirus lockdowns and other restrictions radiate through the economy. “Our recreational marine group models currently assume a 25 percent decline in new-boat demand over the next 12 months and then a 20 percent decline for the subsequent 12-month period — or a cumulative decline of about 40 percent over the next 12- to 18-month period,” writes B. Riley marine analyst Eric Wold.

Broader equity and debt market volatility likely will have the most impact at higher-price-point segments, such as the saltwater fiberglass fishing category, writes Tim Conder of Wells Fargo. At the same time, sustained unemployment trends likely will have the greatest impact at lower price points, such as aluminum fishing boats.

The numbers are disappointing, but Kloppe is hopeful the pandemic will ultimately give the industry a boost. “We’ve all been cooped up,” he says. “When you take the reins off, people are going to be ready to go.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.

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