A few weeks ago in Keene, N.H., a pair of young men stood behind a pickup truck in the Dick’s Sporting Goods parking lot. There were two brand-new kayaks in the truck bed, and the men were staring with bewilderment at the tie-downs in their hands.
“Should we help them?” my partner asked.
“If they’re still here when we come out of the store, we’ll help them,” I said.
Sure enough, they were still there. The tie-downs snaked across the parking lot, and the men had not made any progress securing the kayaks. My partner gave a tutorial on how to use the ratchet mechanism, and we wished them well.
It was far from an isolated event. Across the country, people are feverishly looking for ways to get outside safely after being cooped up for months. And they’re turning to boats.
The choice makes sense during a socially distant summer, when other activities such as camps, concerts and sports are canceled. Many families have abandoned their vacation plans, too. “People are viewing [boating] as a safe way to have fun over the summer in lieu of their travel plans,” says Vicky Yu, director of business intelligence at the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
According to data published by The Chicago Tribune, top Google searches for retail products this summer include several boating-related categories. Searches for kayaks are up 70 percent. Paddleboards and tubes are up 100 percent. Powerboats are up 70 percent. Bryan Seti, general manager of Yamaha WaterCraft Group, says Web traffic is up more than 200 percent over last year. (Eighty percent of that traffic is organic.)
Just a few months ago, the outlook was much more dire. When the NMMA polled manufacturers in the spring, more than 70 percent were experiencing supply chain disruptions and were unable to operate anywhere near their usual capacity. Yu says business sentiment was the lowest it had ever been.
Now, as businesses experiment with varying degrees of reopening, spirits are high. Yu says that while production and sales overall still lag for this time of year, the small watercraft segment is booming. High-volume PWC sales, which account for a quarter of new powerboats sold annually, were up 75 percent in May compared with the same time last year. Yamaha WaterCraft had the best May on record, selling 9,000 WaveRunners compared with its usual 5,000 to 6,000.
Non-motorized craft are having a moment, too. According to West Marine regional marketing manager Lorene Frank, paddle sports have been a top-performing category for the national retailer. Sharon Scott, senior director of brand management and product development at Johnson Outdoors Watercraft, the parent company of canoe and kayak brand Old Town, says dealers are seeing “robust interest in all kinds of paddle sports.”
Stephan Lance, owner and president of Defender Industries, isn’t surprised that his inflatable sales are up more than 40 percent over last year, or that he recently sold 150 paddleboards in a single week. The 82-year-old company has always done well during recessions. “The trend has always been [that] when the economy sags, our sales pick up,” he says, as families look for ways to be together outside.
There is evidence that first-time buyers are driving the surge of purchases. Frank says West Marine is reaching an entirely new customer base that includes people of all ages and geographies. Seti says that this summer, first-time buyers have accounted for more than 40 percent of Yamaha WaterCraft sales. It’s not exactly organic growth, since the pandemic has created an unprecedented socioeconomic landscape, but it’s a boon for industry players who have been attempting for years to get new people into the sport.
Yamaha WaterCraft is enticing new buyers by offering 90-day, no-money-down financing on personal watercraft and up to six months on jetboats. “We recognized that some people were out of work,” Seti says. “Some people were unsure when they would get their next paycheck, so we wanted to give them peace of mind that, down the line, they would start their first payment.”
Seventy percent of jetboat buyers and 35 percent of PWC buyers are choosing this financing option, Seti says. (At the time of this writing, most Yamaha WaterCraft dealers were sold out.)
For a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, West Marine went dark on social media. Then the company eased back in with an image of a kayak on a serene mountain lake. Frank says the brand has been “listening to the pulse of our customers and the country” to feel out what kind of marketing is appropriate. “At the beginning, we all just wanted to be inspired and comforted, and we didn’t want to be overly promotional,” she says. “So we’ve really tried to reflect that in our marketing.”
Covid-specific marketing can be risky, says Lance, who remembers the post-9/11 marketing campaigns promoting family togetherness. “Everything fell flat then,” he says, so he has avoided similar campaigns this year.
Manufacturers and dealers are now considering how to retain new buyers. “It’s just as easy to lose these people as it is to win them,” Lance says.
Defender Industries is stocking the accessories, such as anchors and dock lines, that customers will need after they try out a new inflatable paddleboard or boat. Yamaha WaterCraft is loosely modeling the buying experience after the on-demand service apps that consumers have come to rely on. After seeing a boat in the showroom, buyers can e-sign paperwork, text the dealer and have the vessel delivered when and where they choose.
“The Internet has been around for 25 years,” Seti says with a chuckle. “We just figured out how to maximize it for the boating industry.”
Looking ahead, Yu says, manufacturers are split on how 2020 will end. Some expect to double their profits over last year, while others say they will trail. “It speaks to how much uncertainty there is,” she says, adding that customer sentiment and behavior could change depending on Covid-19 surges.
Lance says that, historically, when families buy a first boat and then the kids get older, the parents upgrade to a newer, bigger boat. Eventually the kids become old enough to buy their own boats. That may or may not happen following the pandemic. “I suspect it will,” he says, “but new boaters are not as predictable as the salted old boaters that I’m accustomed to.”
Seti is more confident. He says that this summer, the market is being “seeded” for the next generation of water-loving families. “I think we’re going to reap the benefits for a long time,” he says, noting that buyers will likely want to make good on their investment by committing to boating for at least the next few years.
Beyond those factors, Frank says, customers are going to continue chasing the mental calm that results from time spent in nature. “It’s a reflection of our times and a reflection that people really are needing that inner connection, inner peace,” she says. “I don’t see that going away.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.