By John Morris
As we speak, Spring 2014 is visible on the horizon. But before it arrives, it’s floorplan time, merchandise ordering time and staff hiring time.  What to do?
Yes, we first get to the boat show season, but then the daffodils bloom and its time to launch.  What will you be featuring at your dock/showroom/retail outlet and how many of them will you be able to sell?
If you are a wise practitioner you have been keeping closely in touch with your customers and absorbing their plans. How many will move up? You’ve had an eye on the water and government bulletins to ascertain the depth available. You’re working with your suppliers who, we hope, have a good idea of what will appeal to buyers as the sun returns to our shores.
Yes, some research is available from industry sources but we’re not consumer juggernauts like Nestle or Budweiser and research is expensive. An individual dealer isn’t likely to have a staff economist or stats genius on board so you rely as most of the industry must, on intuition plus a mix of talking to customers and your peers.
For example, last winter our anecdotal research as well as statistics showed that pontoon boats was a hot category last winter and many dealers took orders for as many as they could deliver. Will that hold this spring or is wakeboarding going to boom. Will the America’s Cup provide a bump in catamaran sales? Will inflatable PFDs push conventional PFDs off the shelves.
NMMA Canada has commissioned a comprehensive study of the industry entitled The Economic Impact of Recreational Boating in Canada 2012. It’s an interesting read and offers some very warming stats such as About 35% of Canadians (9.4 million people) participate in boating and Canadians own over 4.3 million boats. It is packed with stats and information and in its conclusions in Section 5 pronounces  “After a number of austere years, the boating industry organizations that have survived have a guardedly positive outlook for their future.”  So, hooray.
Useful as this document may be in its helicopter view, it has little to say about consumer trends or preference beyond noting that the aging population and tourism have impacts on some segments of the population and that cross-border shopping has a large influence on retailers. 
Research online provides a lot of heat but not too much light. An example: in January 2011 Cottage Life published a broad article called “6 new boat design trends.” The article does a nice job of rounding up the views of designers and builders on the characteristics they think consumers want based on their perception of sales and tastes.  But are they right?  In the article’s Towboat section, the introduction reads “Love ’em or hate ’em, powerful, aggressive-looking sport boats have rendered the traditional, inboard-powered ski boat almost extinct.”  Does that match you experience?
I spent some time reading on the Internet with interesting results. There’s quite a lot out there – Practical Sailor has a very good look at the difference in performance between traditional and more modern sail cruisers along with a discussion of what consumers like about each. 
For individual marine dealers in Canada the crystal ball is often replaced with the rearview mirror. What happened last year? The last ten years?  Each dealer knows the marketplace they operate in, not necessarily according to graphs and charts but more likely from anecdotes and “feel.” 
It’s easy to go wrong unfortunately unless you’re incredibly conservative. Last year I attended the C&C reunion and observed some very extensive ash-sifting as the best brains in the business reviewed the huge successes and ultimate failure of Canada’s largest builder that was once the world’s leader in sailboats only to close up completely a decade later. Did C&C not see the changes coming?
Actually the folks on the discussion panel couldn’t even identify with certainty the forces that led to C&Cs decline. Foreign competition? A bad economy? Over-production? Quality that was so good the market became saturated with old boats? Aging sailors turning to trawlers?  It was informed conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless.  In hindsight, perhaps the company could have reduced production, modernized its boats and stayed competitive, but we’ll never know that. We do know that decades ago the Toronto International Boat Show, a bellwether of boating in this country, was dominantly sail with only a smattering of power. Last year it was entirely the reverse. What will it look like in decades to come?
So where does that leave you. Doing what you always have done often means you’ll continue as you always have. That may be a slow boat ride, but it might also be safe. On the other hand if you were a Muskoka dealer who loaded up on pontoon boats you may be feeling pretty good right about now. Wise insight or a lucky guess – write in and tell us!  Please.  
Last word
On the website of the British Marine Federation (their version of the NMMA and operators of the London Boat Show) there’s a quote from a prominent British manufacturer who wisely notes “In today’s highly competitive global market, quality research and data from various sources is the cornerstone of every strategic decision we make.”  For the Canadian marine enterprise, this is sage advice. The big question is where do we source that information.


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