2014’s champion: the pontoon boat

Pontoons were the big winners in 2014 — a year that saw overall new-boat sales rise about 10 percent from 2013 by September, when about 95 percent of sales typically have been made.

The saltwater fishing boat and ski boat segments also continued to make gains. Both are important because those boats typically sell for larger dollar amounts and carry stronger margins, according to Info-Link managing director Jack Ellis. The only segments that flailed were runabouts, which continued to decline, and cruisers and yachts, which stayed flat.

PWC saw the largest percentage of growth, with a 23 percent sales increase, to about 47,000 units, according to Info-Link data, and pontoons saw growth of about 6.5 percent, to about 41,500 units. Pontoon sales growth has slowed somewhat, but it remains solid, especially considering that the 2014 growth comes on top of double-digit increases for the past several years, Ellis says.

“The thing that’s tough is that every one of these segments that has seen good growth over the course of the year, they’re still half what they were,” Ellis says — every segment except pontoons.


“Pontoon boat sales are almost identical to what they were in 2005,” he says. “Pontoons are by far the big winners when you look at things long-term. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts. Even people who, perhaps years ago, would have bought a runabout, they are looking at pontoons because they have more power and more amenities.”

The versatility of the boats, along with the diminishing stigma of who owns them, is helping propel the category. “As fuel economy, lower maintenance costs and strong resale value continue to be at the top of the priority list as people make their boat-purchasing decisions, tritoons keep coming out on top,” says Barb Niedergerke, sales manager at Glencove Marina at Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. “With all of the advances in the performance of these models, you can have it all.”

Randy Stambaugh, national sales manager at pontoon builder Premier Marine, agrees the versatility of the vessels has contributed to their rise in popularity.

Companies such as Brunswick have been expanding their pontoon-building capacity to meet the steady increase in demand, which, though slowing, remains strong, Ellis says. “The growth has finally slowed a little bit, but if you consider the rapid growth they’ve had for the past several years, a 6 percent increase on top of last year’s growth is still pretty remarkable.”

Fish and ski

Freshwater fishing boat sales were tracking to be about 10 percent above 2013, with about 43,000 boats sold, according to Info-Link data. Brunswick chairman and CEO Dusty McCoy continued to laud the aluminum segment in quarterly earnings calls in October.

“I really don’t want to minimize the work that’s being done in our aluminum boat businesses, be it share [or] new product,” McCoy told analysts and investors during a conference call. “It’s also beginning to show up in [profits] quite nicely here in this quarter, and I think it will continue also.”

Brunswick president and chief operating officer Mark Schwabero has listed Lund’s Impact line, a crossover product, among the most successful model releases of 2014.

Saltwater fishing boats and ski boats had double-digit sales increases of 14 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

The saltwater fishing boat segment has continued to grow as Florida’s housing market improves, Ellis says. “There are two things happening there. You’ve got some companies that have done a great job of selling more of an entry-level saltwater fishing boat. They’ve removed unnecessary expense, and they’ve done great job marketing and selling those boats,” he says. “And then at the higher end, those guys are selling boats, too.

“I think it has a lot to do with the obvious: A lot of people are feeling more comfortable, especially in South Florida, and when it comes to big, expensive stuff, that’s where a lot of that’s sold. Last year, and maybe the year before, people were feeling a little uneasy about their situation, especially with respect to values of homes and the like,” says Ellis. “The real estate market has recovered, and I think that’s being reflected in those sales.”

The ski-boat market continues to improve, with about 16 percent year-over-year growth, but in terms of its overall impact on boating, the numbers are small, Ellis says. About 7,500 ski boats were sold, compared with about 12,000 in the segment’s heyday. “While it’s small, relative to the overall market, it’s still good to see that segment grow, especially if you consider those are expensive boats,” he says.

Still challenged

Yacht sales remained flat from 2013, and runabouts continued their decline, albeit more slowly than in recent years. Slightly more than 15,000 of those were sold in 2014 for the 12 months that ended in September.

“The only segments that continue to struggle are runabouts, cruisers and yachts,” Ellis says. “And we’re not telling the industry anything they don’t already know.”

The thing that’s tough, says Ellis, is that with the exception of pontoons, even the growing segments are half what they were in the two peaks of the late 1990s and the mid-2000s. “[Sales of] yachts, runabouts and cruisers are still about a third, at best, of what they were back in the heyday.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue.


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