Assistant sales manager Scott Irwin is pictured on a pontoon boat at Wilson Marine Oakland in Commerce Township Feb. 16.

Assistant sales manager Scott Irwin is pictured on a pontoon boat at Wilson Marine Oakland in Commerce Township Feb. 16.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Boat dealerships ‘slammed’ with interested buyers

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Mark Vest | Metro | Published February 19, 2021

 A Bayliner boat is pictured. Those who want a boat may be in for a wait due an increase in popularity some retailers have experienced since the pandemic.

A Bayliner boat is pictured. Those who want a boat may be in for a wait due an increase in popularity some retailers have experienced since the pandemic.

Photo by Deb Jacques

METRO DETROIT — From a low of leaving a show after just a day to a high of months of great sales, the boating industry has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than other industries, likely because its product is designed to be used in the relative safety of outdoors.

Almost a year ago, Dennis Anderson was at the Suburban Collection Showplace for the Novi Boat Show.

“The boat show opened up on Thursday and got shut down on Friday,” said Anderson, of Anderson’s Boat Sales, 36301 Jefferson Ave. in Harrison Township, regarding the March 2020 event. “After setting up a boat show and filling a building full of product, it was quite traumatic.”

It’s no surprise that boat dealers had no idea what to expect for the 2020 season during the April and May shutdown. June brought quite a surprise.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused Michiganders to seek out safe activities, boating was an industry that benefited by the flock to the outdoors.

“People (were) looking for activities that were accepted and that they felt comfortable that they could do so, yes, we saw a tremendous boost in people looking to go boating,” Anderson said.

The sales increase impacted vessels across the board, from $500,000 cruisers to $10,000 fishing boats, all driven by enthusiasm from new boaters and those looking to get back into boating who had not owned a boat in some time.

“When May 1 hit last year, there was a substantial amount of people getting into boat buying ... much larger boats due to the fact that a lot of their kids’ activities were being canceled. They decided to spend exponentially more on boats than you would ever think,” said Dave Giles, vice president of sales at Colony Marine, 24530 Jefferson Ave. in St. Clair Shores.

Enthusiasts were purchasing boats to stay on, long term, and taking boats up north with the family. Colony Marine sells boats in sizes ranging from 13 feet up to 75 feet, and Giles said it didn’t matter the size — “everything was selling.”

In a typical year, more sales are driven by current boaters looking to upgrade their craft, but that wasn’t necessarily the case in 2020.

“People were looking for things they could do in the outdoors,” Anderson said.

Michigan wasn’t the only state to see a boating boom during the COVID-19 pandemic, either.

According to the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association’s 2020 U.S. Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract, sales of outboard engines rose by 18% from 2019 to 2020. Although the association isn’t set to release details of sales of sailboats, powerboats, cruiser, watersport, fishing boat and trailer trends until March, data from summer 2020 show that sales were up that year compared with 2019. In August 2020, sales of personal watercraft (PWCs), pontoons and freshwater fishing boats were up between 2% and 10% from 2019 across the country, and sales of saltwater fishing boats, tow boats, cruisers and yachts had growth of 11% to 15% from 2019 to 2020.

“The heightened interest in boating amid the COVID-19 pandemic helped to propel outboard engine sales to historic levels last year, as more Americans took to the water,” said Vicky Yu, NMMA director of business intelligence, in a Feb. 10 press release from the organization. “With boating participation on the rise, boat sales expected to remain steady and engine manufacturers catching up to meet demand, we should continue to see healthy levels in outboard engine sales into 2021.”

Scott Irwin, of Wilson Marine Oakland in Commerce Township, is of the opinion that if people wait until the spring to start shopping for a boat, there’s not likely going to be a lot of inventory left. Wilson Marine has five locations, including one in Harrison Township.

After being “completely sold out” last year, things have also been busy in 2021.

“We are just slammed,” Irwin said. “Most of our manufacturers are already sold out for the model year. … If you come in wanting a particular size with (a) particular color, it’s harder. You have to settle more than ever.”

Even for those who are proactive and order during the winter, Irwin said the earliest they would probably receive a boat would be sometime between June and July.

The manufacturing side of things is playing a role in the wait some may have to endure before getting to enjoy a new boat.

“The manufacturers can’t get parts,” Irwin said. “They can’t get all the little pieces that go into putting it together. So, logistics-wise, it’s been hard to get (the) final product to the dealership.”

Irwin estimated that 25% of people coming in to buy a boat have never owned one before. He said the biggest seller has been pontoon boats, which can range in price from $18,000 to $70,000 or more.

“The boating lifestyle has increased substantially. It’s been extremely exciting,” Giles said. “It’s been like we’ve had this 10-month non-ending boat show going on where it just doesn’t stop.”

While Giles said they do miss taking their products to the Detroit Boat Show, Colony Marine has been able to offer customers COVID-restricted showings that stay within safety protocols.

“What’s going on now, in 2021, is actually a little bit different than in 2020 because now we’re dealing with the shortage of boats now, new and used. We probably have four times more boats sold on order than we normally have,” Giles said.

Certain models are on back order for 14-16 months, he said.

“If you’re seeking to get a new boat or get into the boating lifestyle, better sooner than later,” he said.

Anderson said he has also seen strong boat sales going into 2021.

“We’ve been in a very constant business since June of last year. We’ve seen the uptick and the expansion of the boating community,” Anderson said. “Most of the boat manufacturers that I’m aware of — not just that I represent — are sold out for the 2021 model year.”

That means those looking to purchase a boat have to choose from dealer stock, which may be limited, place an order for a 2022 model or look at used boats. Unfortunately, Anderson said, used vessels are also at a premium.

“Typically this time of year, we have 30 to 35 used boats in our inventory,” he said Feb. 9. “I’m looking at my inventory right now — I have two. The used boat market has disappeared.”

Even without in-person boat shows to stoke interest, the industry is not suffering, Anderson said.

“The Detroit area is a boating community and is one of the most fruitful boating communities in the country. It’s something that Michiganders do,” he said. “We have the boats in our showroom, so it just means that someone (will have) to do a little driving, or they have to shop with their mouse, which most consumers do nowadays anyway.”

For both newbies and veterans, being a boat owner has been an enjoyable escape from the pandemic.

“It gets people outside where you’re a lot safer and get to do things with your family,” Irwin said. “I think it’s been good that way. … It’s opened options for people, and I think they’re enjoying it.”