The shrinking middle: New study points to challenges for boating

A new study out from the Pew Center shows just how badly the middle class has been walloped by the Great Recession and the decade that preceded it.

Since 2000, the middle class has gotten smaller and seen its average income and household wealth and shrink dramatically. Pew defines the middle class as those whose income is two-thirds to twice the national median, a group that makes up 51 percent of the population.

A few other key takeaways from the report:

  • Average household income for the middle class fell 5 percent (in 2011 $) from $72,956 in 2001 to $69,487 in 2010
  • Median net worth (in 2011 $) dropped 28 percent from $129,582 to $93,150
  • 62 percent said they have had to decrease their spending

You can read the full report here.

What all this points to is a disturbing trend for our industry — a shrinking middle class with increasingly less money means a smaller and smaller group to sell boats to. (There’s a broader issue here, of course, but we’ll stay focused on boating.)

When I think back to when I was a kid, almost everybody I knew had a boat. Heck, we had three. Sure, some of them were old, beat-up aluminum outboards, but my relatives and our neighbors, were out there on the water fishing or duck hunting or skiing. Most of the driveways in our neighborhood had a boat in them. I just don’t see the same thing anymore, and that’s a little scary.

Sure, some of this is just because people have other interests, but affordability is a big issue, too. We’re in the process of going through our Top 100 applications right now, and it’s something I’m seeing people write about, with a handful trying to address the issue through boat clubs, rentals, trial purchase periods and the such.

Others have decided just to aim for the top of the market, but there are only so many upper-income earners to go around.

I’m curious to hear what others are doing — if you’ve got any good ideas, post them here in the comments.


One comment

  1. FAYS MARINA BoatShop shares your shrinking boat owner concerns. A report from Brunswick’s Andy Graves at last night’s Crestliner Dealer Meeting suggested an encouraging recent uptick in boating, but like you, we have been concerned over these long-term trends. Such as the shrinking Middle Class income. Then, ‘bulge population’ of Baby Boomers (1946-1964 birth) is approaching retirement and they have controlled 80% of the wealth and 50% of discretionary buying and will be leaving their prime purchase years over the next two decades. Then, the Generations (X-Y-Z) to follow have demonstrated less “nature-bound outdoor activites” including fishing and boating … all are dangerous trends to our Outdoor Boating industry and the family-oriented recreation it entails. A report several years ago spoke of the bulge of Baby Boomers entering retirement years, starting in 2007, and changing the nature of of all markets, including boating. So potentially our core customers are looking for their last boat, and it is appearing to be a pontoon boat-deckboat-style runabout, or an aluminum fishboat by the growth numbers.

    Question: How do you grow the next generation of boater? It is said, if you can reach a child with the fun of boating, water and fishing by ages 8-12 you have a boater in adult life. But 12-yr olds don’t buy boats, so how do you reach the families of 8-12 yr olds? We are grateful for local walleye clubs and take-a-kid fishing initiatives. What could a dealer do? So we started a three phase campaign for the next generation’s attention – becoming a broader fun center – in hopes our kids and grandkids will have a healthy boating business to run and have the joy of helping families to play together in boating.

    Phase 1 was adding Personal Watercraft, which are low margin but offer service & accessories to offset, so we could get in front of a younger generation of boaters.

    Then, added “Under $500” boats in form of Pedal-Paddle boats with kayaks and pedal boats along with canoes and paddle boards so all could share affordably

    Next is boat rentals for 2013, so a family’s three generations can affordably get into boating as a family unit and experience the unique bonding and building power of boating.

    We have been rewarded by efforts so far, and are anxious to hear from other dealers efforts to grow the next generation of boaters.

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