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The affordability challenge

If you want to get on the water, you’ll find a way to get on the water. Small boat. Project boat. Begged, borrowed or banged-up boat. But if you’re not among the upper middle class — say, the top 20 percent — you’re probably not buying a new premium brand.

Hasn’t that always been the case with boats? Boats have never been cheap, but the gap between those who can afford a new select brand and those who can’t appears to be widening. Part of the reason is the rising cost of new boats. And it can partly be attributed to the steadily eroding middle class, wage stagflation and related issues.

Affordability is a hurdle to faster growth of new-boat sales. The fact that it’s being discussed as much as it has, I think, is a good thing. Solutions, including new ways of getting people on the water, are in the works. Reducing the cost of boating is one thing; reducing the actual cost of a new boat is another.

Next Friday, Boating Writers International is hosting a panel discussion on “how to make boating more affordable and attractive” during the Miami International Boat Show.

It’s a strong group. The four panelists are Brunswick chairman and CEO Dusty McCoy; SunTrust Bank senior vice president Don Parkhurst; Legendary Marine managing partner Fred Pace; and Freedom Boat Club CEO John Giglio.

The moderators will be BWI board member Michael Sciulla, who is producing the program, and yours truly.

It should be an interesting discussion. We’ll carry a report in both Trade Only Today and the print magazine.

Grow Boating Chairman Joe Lewis discussed affordability in a recent column updating the Discover Boating initiative. The column is well worth reading. Joe makes a number of good points.

Here is a brief excerpt: “The common thread throughout is not to convince people boating is inexpensive, but that it’s worth it — how boating delivers a value in family recreation. This does not lessen the importance for each of us to do our part to control the cost of participation and keep it as reasonable as we can. This is important to the future of boating. We cannot forget what boating delivers — freedom, fun, excitement and an opportunity to connect. Boating delivers memories that last a lifetime. And that’s not a cliché — it’s a fact.”

Well said.

For a sobering assessment of what’s happening to the middle class today, read The New York Times story “The Middle Class is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World.

Here’s a snippet from the recent piece: “The post-recession reality is that the customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away.”

It quotes John Maxwell, the head of global retail and consumer practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers, saying: “Those consumers who have capital like real estate and stocks and are in the top 20 percent are feeling pretty good. ... As a retailer or restaurant chain, if you’re not at the really high level or the low level, that’s a tough place to be. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle.”

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