Sales of the lightweight metal fishing boats have been outpacing fiberglass since bottoming out in 2010
Aluminum fishing boat sales have outperformed the overall market and overshadowed their fiberglass counterparts since 2008, when the industry — and the economy — took a dive. The endurance of aluminum fishing boat sales through the downturn proved the segment is more insulated than others from fluctuations in the economy, politics and consumer confidence, some say.
“The aluminum boat segments of the new powerboat market tend to be less volatile over time. That has certainly been the case in the past market cycle,” says Maurice Bowen, a spokesman for Tracker Marine, which sells boats through its Bass Pro Shops and network of 200 independent dealers, as well as its Sun Tracker pontoons, Nitro, Mako and Tahoe lines. “Our Tracker brand is the market leader in aluminum boats, with a market share a bit higher than that of the next two brands combined. The Tracker Pro Team 175 is the best-selling fishing boat in the world.”
The distribution model is a factor in the brands’ success, as is the “strong connection Bass Pro Shops has with families who enjoy the outdoors,” Bowen says. The No. 1 buying source of information for customers, whether they buy from dealers or through the stores, is the Bass Pro Shops catalog, he says.
Directly after the downturn, aluminum fishing boats bottomed out faster than most other segments. Data from Florida-based Info-Link show that in December 2008, 59,025 units were sold on a 12-month year-over-year basis, dropping 15.5 percent from 2007. The following year saw the biggest drop — 23.1 percent, to 45,395 units — before the segment bottomed out in 2010 with 44,660 boats sold.
“Boating is at the core of the fishing and the outdoor family lifestyle, and so this discretionary purchase is higher on the list of priorities for a good number of our customers,” Bowen says. “On the fishing boat side, ease of ownership in terms of driving, towing, storing, affordability and reliability has kept them accessible to more people, relatively speaking.”
Although sales have been fairly steady after the initial recession-induced drop-off, the market’s performance is “not the same story as pontoon by any stretch of the imagination,” says Peter Houseworth, director of client services for Info-Link. Data show the market was up 3 percent in 2012 from 2011.
At the same time, the pontoon market has continued to climb. “I just don’t think there’s demand for a ton of innovation on aluminum fishing boats, whereas the innovation that’s gone on in pontoons has created a lot of excitement,” says SteveTadd, director of marketing at Nautic Global Group, which builds aluminum fishing and pontoon boats and fiberglass sterndrive and outboard models.
Beverly Ramsey, marketing manager for Brunswick Corp. builder Lowe Boats, says the segment’s appeal to very niche buyers is helping to spawn more specialized boats within the segment. “Fishing boats are expanding into areas beyond typical bass or panfish-style fishing boats and into more niche markets,” she says. “Fishing that has typically been left to the consumer to customize their boat to meet their specific needs has grown to the point where manufacturers are starting to tailor models to those consumer needs.”
Brunswick CEO Dustan McCoy told investors during a fourth-quarter earnings call that the brand was bringing a lot of revenue dollars per boat. “They’re very popular for people who are serious fishermen,” McCoy said.
But a recent softening in the segment was unexpected, Tadd says. “I was a little surprised by the plateau of aluminum fishing boats, or even a slight dip,” Tadd says. “I don’t know if I necessarily understand that. At this point, we’re just monitoring the recent slowing in growth because we believe the aluminum fishing market will recover just fine.”
Numbers from Statistical Surveys Inc., a Michigan company that also tracks boat sales, showed that the only category to post a gain in February this year over last was aluminum pontoons, where sales rose 10.6 percent, to 636. At the same time, aluminum fishing boat sales for the month fell 19 percent, to 1,197. Tadd attributes the drop in part to a lag in consumer confidence during the debate in Congress over the sequester, which ultimately occurred.
Big-box stores and pontoons
Connecticut-based Beacon Point Marine sells Scout, Sea Fox and Bentley boats at locations in Greenwich and Shelton. The dealership considered picking up an aluminum fishing boat line and ultimately decided to go with Bentley pontoons, says sales manager Richard Peterson. “I sit in an office overlooking the Housatonic River, and there are guys out there fishing every day,” Peterson says. “There had to be 25 of them out the other day.”
Asked whether he still considers adding an aluminum brand to the fiberglass fishing lineup, Peterson answers with a resounding no. “I can’t compete with a Cabela’s or those big-box stores,” he says. “I don’t think there’s enough demand.”
The 14-foot to 17-foot aluminum boat was “pretty hot” for a while prior to the pontoon market surge, but people bought them throughout the recession, and “there are only so many buyers out there,” Peterson says. “I have also had guys looking at a pontoon who had been looking at an aluminum fishing boat and thought, Well, I can get this, fish from it and do a family thing, too. I can get everybody on a pontoon boat. Everything is all fishy up front and loungy in the back.”
Bowen agrees there might be some crossover between the two. (The Tracker brand is in the same family as Nitro, Sun Tracker pontoons, Tahoe and Mako.) “Pontoon boats are very popular with parents looking for a way to bring their children, grandchildren and friends together,” Bowen says. “Baby boomers are discovering that pontoons are great next boats. At the same time, pontoon builders are bringing more exciting designs and new levels of performance to this category, providing very attractive and high-value choices.”
Tadd agrees that pontoons might be pulling away from fishing because there is more excitement in that segment. “There’s more innovation versus an aluminum fishing boat that has primarily been functional.”
Ramsey thinks continued growth of catfish boats, a hot trend now, and the emergence of bowfishing and other niche markets will re-energize the fishing boat market. Manufacturers have enhanced their current bass, crappie and other niche boats by expanding standard features and options, she says. “To that end, they have also worked hard at identifying new opportunities beyond bass, crappie, walleye, etc., and have done a great deal of development work on offering broader assortments to tap into niche markets.”
Bowen believes the segment’s appeal is lasting. “Today, aluminum boats — fishing and pontoon boats — are more than 50 percent of the new powerboat market. Their relative affordability, value, functionality and overall appeal will continue to make them great choices for the current and next generation of boaters.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.