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What’s holding our buyers back?

As already reported, the Miami International Boat Show & Strictly Sail was another success and the Detroit Boat Show that runs until this Sunday racked up a very big first weekend.

Moreover, reports now coming in of more show visitors indicating they want to buy, along with reportedly better sales than a year ago, are all welcomed news. Pushing back, however, is a genuine sense that prospective boaters are still reluctant to move. What’s holding them back? In a word: uncertainty.

Thanks to NMMA vice president Cathy Rick-Joule, I was able to spend five days in the Discover Boating affordability display at the Miami show. I talked with hundreds of potential first-time boat buyers about how affordable and easy it is to buy a boat, even showing them a variety of boats priced under $250/month, less than an average car payment, I would tell them. And while many seemed clearly impressed by the information, they were equally as strong in suggesting they likely wouldn’t move forward now.

When I pressed them to share why they wouldn’t buy a boat they wanted now, there was one answer that repeatedly came up — uncertainty.

“I don’t think we know how much we’re going to have left with what’s happening in Washington,” they’d say.

Sequestration. The fiscal cliff. Deficit spending. The national debt. It’s all scaring the hell out of us. We’ve known about it since the summer of 2011. It was supposed to be settled last December, but the Obama Administration and Congress just punted any cuts to March 1. Meanwhile, the federal deficit is so big we have trouble comprehending it. We’re just thankful someone will finance it. And the prospect that we’ll have to cough up some unknown additional taxes to reduce it is leaving people . . . well, uncertain.

But what might be most distressing in all this is the apparent lack of genuine concern being demonstrated by the White House and Congress. And I found the bottom line for lots of those people who visited the Discover Boating exhibit was simply this: When people feel uncertain about the future, they just hold off purchases of durable hard goods. People don’t buy boats when they’re not confident.

I’m convinced the unprecedented political rhetoric flying through the air these days must be the single largest contributor to global warming — after all, it’s a product of hot air, isn’t it? So it’s not surprising, then, that against all this background, many people would say they don’t feel they can move forward with a boat purchase right now, even if they’d really like to.

So what do we do? Short of the impractical idea of getting a new President and Congress, let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing to keep moving forward as our industry’s improving sales indicate. And we should also recognize that when uncertainty is seriously diminished, there is every indication that a lot of finally confident new people could be visiting our showrooms.


5 comments on “What’s holding our buyers back?

  1. Ed McKnew

    Norm’s assertion that consumer uncertainty is holding back boat sales may well be true, but how then does one explain the relative good health of the luxury RV industry? Those guys are kicking our butts.

  2. Beth B

    Washington will do what Washington will do. I don’t know how you phrased the question to those people, but I do know that unless a question is phrased and delivered in a very neutral way, the answers will be suspect. And this columnist’s political bent is clear in the columns and likely clear in person, too. Blaming Washington for the marine industry’s problems suggests you think the world is going to return to 1959.

    I would suggest you think outside the box a little. Boats are still marketed to white guys with suburban homes with room in the yard for a trailer. What are the options for someone who doesn’t have a place to park the boat and trailer? What additional cost? How about the maintenance issues? Everybody in the North who has any interest in boats has heard plenty of winterization horror stories. You either pay somebody a lot of money to do the winterization for you, or you try to follow the owner’s manual’s instructions and pray every winter that you didn’t screw it up.

    Look at this from a woman’s point of view, a woman who is trying to save for her kids’ education, her retirement, and health care. A boat should come first? $250 a month is just the start and she knows it. It might be embarrassing to say “I just can’t afford that”, and blaming Washington is easier. Now, I’m a woman who has owned her own boats and done much of the maintenance, too. i’ve owned power and sail, from a Sunfish to a 34′ cruising sailboat. I’ve bought them new and bought them used. I’ve lived aboard and plan to do so again. I love boats. But you can’t fool me that $250 a month is what it costs, and in my experience, women are a tiny bit more practical about the real costs of optional purchases.

    So…dealers out there who offer rack storage, slips, moorings: do you advertise a true all-in cost for a year’s worth of boating in that sweet new boat you are selling? Do you offer a package deal for winter, summer storage/dockage and regular maintenance? Do you have a realistic cost checklist you can share with new-to-boat-ownership customers?

    Dealers can sit on their heels and pray for a return to the 1950s, or they can accept the 21st century and work on getting more women and minorities, and ESPECIALLY young people who would rather text and play videogames than go outside and play to get into boating. That’s your challenge, and the only lesson you should be taking from Washington politics is the one the Republican Party is slowly learning — marketing only to middle-aged and older white guys may be a viable short term strategy, but in the long term, it’s a loser.

  3. zyxw

    Beth’s and Ed’s comments are right on the mark. One reason that RVs are doing well is the same reason that boats are doing not so well–the ageing baby boomers are giving up the expensive and difficult to own boats for something easier to handle and cheaper to maintain. I personally know of quite a few boaters who have done this. And, unfortunately, I don’t see the younger new boaters coming in at the other end. This trend has been growing for a long time. And, rising fuel prices aren’t going to help. I suggest what we need are more simple boats without all the bell’s and whistles, with much greater fuel efficiency, and much lower maintenance and storage costs. Emphasize boats that are simple, cheap, and fun to own, not ones larded up with extra doodads and so complicated to maintain that the average person can’t do it.

  4. CaptA

    Beths comments are RIGHT ON THE MONEY!!!! I have been saying this for years on various comment board on this very website. WAKE UP BOATING INDUSTRY!!!!! The days of one-owner boats are GONE GONE GONE except for the rich people!!!

    Norm and other who are anti-government. You are starting to get your wish. Most of the Federal workforce are oging to be furloughed this year. Anywhere from 7-25 days. Lets see, for 25 days that means a 10% paycut. Ok, lets use Beths example of $250.00/month. Lets use the reported and over inflated average federal salary of $80,000 per year. $80,000 * 0.1=$8000; $8000/12 = $666 before taxes. Good luck selling your boats guys and girls.

    Now let’s look at it from a different angle. Business traveks will stay in the air longer because of less air traffic controllers resulting in more fuel being burned causing an increase in plane ticket prices. Oh wait–it gets better, how about the international flights? Going through customs and immigration will take 4 hours—guess overall the number of planes entering US air space will have to decrease, resiulting is less supply of plane seats, causing prices to go up and forcing companies to reduces expenses (i.e. salaries).

    And finally how about the US Army Corp of Engineers being forces to reduce dredging and water-way maintenance in the waterways that do not serve the largest of the commercial ship traffic (i.e., recreational waters will not be as navigable or safe)–then why would I want to buy a boat.

    Good Luck!

  5. Shawn Gardner

    Recent studies have indicated 69% of the boating industry’s target demographic struggles with purchasing a boat for many reasons which mainly revolve around the expense of ownership. Add to this the 80+ million Gen-Y’s who have seen their families faced with debt, are in debt, and the prospects of future sales for dealers becomes bleak. Marketing analysts agrees that Gen-Y and the 69% of target consumers, who will never own a boat, would rather have access to a boat vs. buying one.

    Gen-Y is embracing the concept of a sharing economy. They are earning additional income on assets they own (shared ownership), and they have greater access to items they wish to use. The sharing economy is just getting started in the boating industry with peer-to-peer rentals by:

    Fun2Rent’s solution will dramatically change the tide in favor of the boating industry. enables power boat and watercraft owners to rent out their boats when they are not using. Everyone’s insured including the vessel. It’s similar to how others rent their vacation homes on the internet.

    Fun2Rent will also serve as a sales driver for dealerships. When customers learn they can offset ownership costs, the purchase becomes less cost-prohibitive.

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