A Sales Headwind

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Dealer sentiment dropped to 4 in March, its lowest reading to date.

Dealer sentiment dropped to 4 in March, its lowest reading to date.

More than 80 percent of dealers responding to the monthly Pulse Report survey said lower new-boat sales in March resulted in them carrying too much inventory, given that many had ramped up for what was looking like a robust market after a record first quarter.

“As feared, our checks reveal a massive slowdown in retail activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Baird Research in the Pulse Report, a monthly check-in with marine dealers to gauge the market. (Baird administers the survey in conjunction with the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Soundings Trade Only.)

“We have already updated our models to reflect a downturn scenario, but these checks confirm that measures to contain the pandemic will have severe economic consequences,” the report stated.

Dealer sentiment reflects the pandemic, but it also shows hope for the future. Current conditions plummeted to 4 in March, versus 47 in February, but the three- to five-year outlook remained neutral at 50, versus 56 in February.

The survey asked dealers about the pandemic and how it is affecting business.

Most of the 120 respondents remained open in some capacity at the time of the survey, with 42 percent able to conduct most sales activities, 50 percent able to deliver boats, 68 percent able to take orders, and 47 percent able to receive products from OEMs.

Nearly a third said they could withstand a shutdown that lasted more than three months, and 44 percent said they could last between one and two months. Around a quarter of the dealers said they could last less than a month, making the CARES Act critical, the report said.

“Many dealers have not had the chance to understand the nature of the support, but those that have reviewed the program cited small business loans and payroll assistance as good ideas,” the report stated.

One yacht brokerage said its business will be down around 40 percent for 2020 at this point — “which is painful after a record Q1 to start 2020.”

One respondent said he had been calling customers to ask if they wanted their boats ready early, and if they needed service — with about a 50 percent success rate.

“Picking up boat at people’s house and dropping off seems to be working,” the dealer wrote.

Dealer comments varied widely, from those who were seeing no traffic to some who said interest was high from people eager to socially distance on boats. Service and parts and accessories seemed to be the most consistent areas of profit in areas where customers were using their boats.

Others have taken protective measures while keeping doors open.

“We have installed many policies and procedures to keep our employees and customers safe,”one dealer said. “All departments have cleaning schedules. We have installed plexiglass barriers at our service counter and sales counter. We hired a greeter to stop all customers at our front door. She has a Plexiglas barrier. … We are using technology to communicate within our operations. We escort all customers. Customers are not allowed to roam our building or property freely. Luckily, our brands have extended rebates. It is helping us sell some boats.”

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