I wish I could report sales were booming at the St. Petersburg Boat Show & Strictly Sail that closed on Sunday. Unfortunately, “booming” didn’t apply. But, while sales appeared to remain hard to close, interest evidenced by good attendance and serious discussions were welcomed signals.
“We have some excellent possibilities,” said Terry Freeman of Freeman-Eckley Boats (Edgewater). “In normal times we’d probably call them ‘sold’ but in today’s climate we hesitate to say that until we see how the financing goes.”
Ted Meljac, Thunder Marine (Four Winns, Hydra Sports, Riviera), echoed Freeman’s comments. “Financing is definitely in the back of your mind whenever you’re working a deal here,” he said. “But we’re seeing more interest than I’ve seen for some time, the attendance has been surprisingly good and it’s a positive weekend for us.”
Meljac, a veteran salesman and old friend, really interested me when he shared the fact that he put particular emphasis on several non-currents in the display. Supported by some strong manufacturer assistance, these boats were very favorably priced. In fact, they were really selling at prices from several years ago! “For people looking at larger boats, these prices are truly affordable,” Meljac boasted. “And the affordability message is what seems to be resonating with people here. I tell them once these boats are gone, they’re gone. They’ll never buy this cheap again, and it’s true.”
Meljac, Freeman and others all pointed to two important realizations. First, the good attendance and the discussions with prospects all confirmed there’s a growing pent-up demand for boats. They believe the longer sales remain depressed, the bigger the pent up demand will become. When it finally begins to unload, and it will, business will be good for some time.
Second, people are simply afraid to buy right now. They say they feel poor even if they’re not! In an article from the Wall Street Journal, Dave Kansas, president of FiLife.com, observed that the illusion of wealth gives way to the illusion of relative poverty when the news is all bad. “It doesn’t make any difference that most of us continue to hold down the same jobs we had before unemployment rates started to rise,” he wrote. “It doesn’t matter that our personal circumstances are the same as they’ve been for the past few years. What matters, instead, is the vague uncertainty that has descended on us. What matters is our unknown future.”
Economists know this well. They call it the wealth effect, and it maintains that when people simply feel their wealthier because of rising home values or a rising stock market their wallets open, and vice versa.
It seems, then, that selling the idea that “boating is affordable” may well be a key to success at this winter’s boat shows. In fact, it’s already been announced by two major shows – Los Angeles and Chicago – that affordability will take center stage in their advertising and in special displays. Dealers in their show displays and in their stores, should play off the same message.