Outboards hot, sterndrives not

Skim too quickly through the monthly boat registration data compiled by Info-Link, and you might miss something important.
Info-Link’s December Bellwether Report suggests the year-over-year percentage increase in sales of all powerboats 15 feet in length and over is 6 percent. Nothing spectacular, but a solid result nonetheless.
However, if you break those sales numbers down even further, the results don’t seem quite so straightforward.
Info-Link’s numbers show that sales of outboard-powered boats rose nearly
10 percent from 2003 to 2004, while sales of sterndrive boats were essentially flat.
Info-Link’s director of sales and marketing Jesse Wells isn’t sure why outboard boats experienced such healthy growth compared to the anemic rate at which sterndrive boat sales grew.
“We don’t really know,” Wells says. “All we know is that it is happening. The numbers don’t lie.”
But he does have a theory, though he emphasizes it is unsubstantiated at present. Wells believes the economic recovery in the United States has been slower to reach Midwestern states where sterndrives are more prevalent than on the East Coast, where outboard sales have been up.
“It appears sterndrive boats are more concentrated in the landlocked Midwestern states where you see those little runabouts on lakes,” Wells says. “And when you consider the demographic profile of that group of people, it’s middle America versus people who live on the East Coast who have sportfish boats and tend to be a little more affluent. You have Baby Boomers retiring and moving to Florida and getting fishing boats.
“It’s just my theory, but it seems like the typical profile of a saltwater sportfish boat owner and the typical sterndrive runabout boat owner are different. And because of that, maybe the one group is more affected, or
hungover, from the recession, more so than the other. You have to consider the Midwest, the Rust Belt manufacturers, the unions, the farmers, that they may be slower to recover from the recession than some of those on the East Coast.”
Wells says he has also heard some people explain the lag in sterndrive sales by theorizing that there are fewer sterndrive engines, or boats that carry sterndrive engines, in the pipeline, or in inventory, than there are outboards.
“That would certainly explain why it isn’t growing as well, although it’s kind of hard to imagine that you can’t pump out boats fast enough to meet demand, unless there is something quirky going on,” Wells says.
Sales spurred by new technology?
Others suggest that the rapid growth of new technologies in outboard engines and the resulting new product offerings available to consumers are behind the sales surge.
MerCruiser says that overall, its sales of sterndrives went well in 2004, with its weakest areas at least flat, and the stronger areas “up considerably” over 2003.
“In general, we’re pleased with our sales performances this year,” says Steve Fleming, Mercury Marine’s director of communications. “We would suggest that the growth of alternative technology outboard propulsion in the form of direct injection two-stroke, plus greater four-stroke availability in higher horsepower might be fueling more owner interest in purchasing a new boat or upgrading the outboard on an old one.
“While geo-economics might play a small role, there’s more churn in outboard propulsion as folks move to new technology engines. Also, an awful lot of those outboards (midrange especially) are going on lower-cost fishing boats. It’s probably not a Midwest thing, so much as a U.S. thing.”
Whatever the reasons, the growth in outboard sales proves that some buyers are ready to open their wallets. If sterndrive boat makers can grab onto some of those buyers, a wealth of sales potential seems to be at hand.

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