Should we end the “Upgradia Trend” in boat sales?

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We’ve been living in times of instant gratification. Today’s customers want their food fast and packages delivered overnight.

Some experts have dubbed it the “Age of Upgradia.” Nowhere is that more evident than in today’s boat business.

Savvy buyers want their boats to look like a jet cockpit with intuitive touchscreens, integrated remote keypads, auto position hold and joystick docking. And the industry has clearly been delivering — a major reason the price of our boats has steadily climbed.

Will this trend continue? Or, does the industry need to put more focus back on basics and simplicity to grow again?

According to Trendwatching.com, Upgradia is when the old model of physical consumption —purchase, use, declared obsolete and discarded — is overturned by a new model that’s founded on product improvements, upgrades and reiteration. A consumer’s desire to have the newest and best is a key driver for innovators and marketers.

Further, Trend Briefing reports the demand for Upgradia is driven by "two deep consumer desires: more for less money and more with less guilt.”

Actually, this really isn’t all that new. We only need to look at the food industry for a great example. Food and diet beverages have been successfully driven by our wish to have our cake and eat it too — without the accompanying calories or guilt.

Looking ahead for our boating industry, it’s safe to expect the coronavirus pandemic we’re dealing with will trigger some changes. All are not clear, but some are. Boat sales saw a significant decline in April as covid-19 shut down the country.

Industry history confirms we should expect lower sales will continue — most likely for the balance of this year. We’ll need to consider adjusting accordingly.

It’s not that we haven’t been through similar scenarios before; let’s look at what followed the 2008 financial debacle.

New boat production fell from 360,000 units in ’08 to just 165,000 the following year, and essentially sat there for two years. We then began a slow but steady upward climb for the next eight years, getting back to about 280,000 units last year — still notably short of pre-2008 numbers.

In the recessions prior to 2008, several manufactures led by Bayliner and others began producing entry-level models — boat, motor and trailer selling for under $10,000. And lots of them were sold, drawing in many new boaters.

The real value to the industry was the perception that owning a boat was an affordable family activity. There was no Upgradia about these boats or the customers — just the basics to keep the price down, while still providing a desirable product.

In large, the marine industry did not follow that model again after the 2008 recession. However, the RV industry did, with genuine success. They put the spotlight on the inexpensive, entry-level, compact, lightweight, easily towable pop-up campers that unfolded into comfortable living quarters for the family. Backed by nearly $20 million in national “Go RVing” promotion, it rapidly propelled the RV-ing out of the 2008 recession to new heights.

As we start to come out of this covid-19 debacle — hopefully sometime soon — we must recognize that we will again be faced with a slow climb. As an industry, we can learn from the past and chart a better course to avoid the dissatisfaction we experienced following the last recession.

It’s human nature to want to Upgradia. But the economic damage this pandemic has already injected into the marketplace will have a more significant impact than we’d like to think about.

So, it calls for our industry to contemplate reloading in new (perhaps old) ways going forward. There’s no question the manufacturers and dealers that plan to innovate now will take the lead and reap the rewards.

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