MCDERMOTT COLUMN: Boat dealers feel tide is turning ahead of Charleston sales expo
The economic anchor that's been weighing down the boating business for the past few years appears to be losing its grip.
It can't give way quick enough for most dealers.
The Lowcountry is home to at least five recreational boat manufacturers:
Key West Ridgeville
Scout Boats Summerville
Sea Fox Boat Co. Moncks Corner
Zodiac Recreational Summerville
New numbers from the National Marine Manufacturers Association show that recreational powerboat sales jumped 10 percent last year from 2011. The Chicago-based trade group said the industry is seeing its “first signs of healthy growth” since the downturn took hold five years ago
Projections suggest sales gains of as much as 5 percent to 10 percent this year, the marine trade group said in a statement earlier this month. Much of that is based on the assumption that consumer confidence, the housing market and the broader economy will continue to improve.
“A 10 percent boost at retail in 2012 is significant, as this is the first time since the recession we saw healthy growth across the powerboat market, which will create momentum in 2013.” Thom Dammrich, the association's president, said in a statement.
Local dealers are hoping the rising tide will lift business next weekend at the 33rd annual Charleston Boat Show in North Charleston.
The expo, which typically kicks off the local boating season, is a key sales outlet for local dealerships while serving as barometer for consumer sentiment.
Barrier Island Marine owner Scott Chapman has been doing the show circuit. He noted that his Charleston-based business participated in Atlanta's recent sales extravaganza for the first time, teaming up with other sellers to promote the Chris-Craft line.
He came away with two solid sales lead, he said.
“The attendance was fantastic,” said Chapman, who also is chairman of the Tri-County Marine Trade Association, a co-sponsor of the Charleston event.
Boat sales are highly discretionary purchases that contract in bad times and expand in good times. So when the economy came unglued five years ago, the $30 billion a year industry suffered dearly.
The manufacturers association estimated that U.S. unit sales skidded by nearly half to 142,330 between 2007 and 2010 before edging up slightly in 2011 and climbing higher last year.
Locally, the industry hit bottom in 2009, Chapman said. Expectations remain cautious.
“The economic recovery has been slow, but it's been steady in that each year has been better than previous year,” he said. “We don't think we going to blow the doors off this year, but we think this year will be better than last year, which was better than the year before.”
The nice run of recent balmy weather in Charleston provided a nice boost for the start of 2013, said Chapman, whose dealership has locations in West Ashley and Beaufort. At the same time, customers are finding it easier to line up marine financing at low interest rates.
“Our traffic is terrific for January, so we're very optimistic,” he said.
Chapman said he's noticed a marked change when talking with would-be boat buyers.
“They're really not talking about the economy anymore,” he said. “We're not hearing about gas prices. We're not hearing about the election. We're not hearing about taxes, anything. I think they're just tired of it all and just want to go boating and have a good time.”
Businesses in the marine industry also are feeling better, said Jacqui Bomar, whose JBM & Associates is the organizer of the boat shows in Charleston and Savannah.
Unlike previous events, Bomar said last week her Greenville-based firm had no problems selling out the booth space for next weekend.
“This year has a whole different feel,” she said Thursday. “We're not struggling to get people in the show.”
Bomar couldn't pinpoint any one factor for the boat business bullishness. She chalked it up to a combination of things.
“I there's less fear, and people have a little more confidence,” she said. “You can see it in the car business.”
Bomar also alluded to the pickup in the real estate business, drawing on personal experience to drive home her point.
“We have two offers on our house, by the way,” she said.
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.