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Personal watercraft sales continue market climb

By Adam Quandt

In years past, PWC were often considered a large, somewhat inexpensive gateway to get people into the world of boating. While still true on some occasion, with more and more upgraded models of PWCs coming to market, this is not entirely the case anymore. Not only are new models of PWC getting speedier and sportier, but they’re also growing in utility and uses.

From the power and speed of the Kawasaki SX-R standup watercraft and the Sea-Doo Wake Pro 230, to the all-around utility and size of the Yamaha FX Series, and everything else in between, there’s a PWC to match both individual and family needs in today’s market.

With growing diversity in units and a range of price points, PWC sales continue to climb year over year. According to data from the National Marine Manufacturers Association, PWC sales in 2017 were up 5 percent over 2016 and have been growing for the past six consecutive years.

The Sea-Doo Spark offers both sport and utility to individual riders and groups.

Most manufacturers are reporting that they have returned to pre-downturn numbers, if not surpassing them.

“We are a little ahead of where we were before 2008 and 2008, as far as units, which obviously means dollars are well ahead, because units have come up in price in the last 10-11 years quite a bit,” said Yamaha General Manager of Sales & Marketing Bryan Seti. “Unit and dollar levels are ahead of where we were before the downturn.”

“The industry has adjusted to the new realities with a more focused, leaner approach and is built around being a healthier business for the long haul,” added Look Marketing President Tim McKercher, who represents BRP’s Sea-Doo. “With that, there is room for greater growth.”

What’s in the water?

Growth in the PWC market is a result of many different factors, one of which being the variety of products in the current market.

“I think there’s a lot of great product out there; a lot of great product at different price points,” Seti said. “A lot of great product that consumers can use probably in many different ways.”

McKercher said that there isn’t necessarily one specific PWC segment dominating any of the others.

“The Spark has been the best selling model with recreation, luxury, and performance all being fairly balanced across the spectrum of PWC buyers,” McKercher said. “For 2018, the new Sea-Doo GTX (luxury) and RXT (performance) platforms have been the hot seller.”

Yamaha’s FX Series offers the size and utility to be a PWC for the whole family.

McKercher also noted the Sea-Doo Spark changed the used versus new paradigm slightly by offering a lower price on base models. Yet overall, “PWC transactions – both new and used – continue to grow as the economy continues to be strong,” he said.

Dave Oventhal, Kawasaki senior manager of corporate research and product management, said that 3T and 2T entry vehicles are really driving the sales by 2:1 and 3:1 ratios, respectively. “It’s those low-cost entry models,” he added.

Oventhal also mentioned the specific success of the Sea-Doo Spark. “The Spark is still a very high volume model,” he said. “We’re actually seeing that it’s not necessarily a low, low price. People are adding on options. But it’s still relatively a good value, especially for people getting into the sport.”

In talking to various dealers, Oventhal said that it’s the $10,000 and below units that are the strong sellers in the current market.

Who’s buying?

The diversity of products in the PWC market isn’t the only thing that’s changing and growing. Seti said he’s seeing three generations coming together – grandparents, parents and children – using personal watercraft. 

However, despite the range in user age, Seti added that it’s typically the parents and grandparents purchasing the PWCs.

“I think the younger generation is pushing the need and the want for it. Certainly, the parents and the grandparents are in most cases paying for it,” he said. “They’re buying it so that a younger or a mid-generation can actually use the product. I heard somebody give a great name for it, it’s kind of baby bait, a way to get the kids and the grandchildren to come to the lake house and spend time with the grandparents.”

The Kawasaki SX-R standup watercraft supplies power and speed to individual rider.

Seti said he’s starting to see Millennials transition to the purchaser, rather than the influencer, with a first-time buyer rate over 50 percent. McKercher attributed the increase in the millennial and lower-age buyer primarily to the Sea-Doo Spark.

“There’s definitely this level of freedom that has always existed with personal watercraft. I think it continues even more so today, this spirit of being an individual, with individualistic experiences,” Seti said. “Certainly, the millennial group is part of that spirit.”

Despite an increase in millennial first-time buyer rates, McKercher said that the average owner is in his or her mid-40s, college educated and with a family.

“While men are the primary purchasers of PWC, we know the entire family is involved in the purchase process as the entire family will be users of the product,” he added.

A large draw with the PWC has always been the ability to be both a family product and a product for the individual. 

Oventhal said that PWCs offer the excitement of an individual activity, like with a motorcycle, but also offer an opportunity for groups to go adventure together.

“People are using PWC for more of an adventure, and exploration,” Oventhal said. “Kind of go out to rivers and lakes, and find new things, place to go, or places to fish.” 

For example, a 2017 episode of Power Boat Television highlighted the versatility of adventuring in a group of PWCs by taking them Geocaching around a few Ontario lakes.

“When you go deep down and you start doing surveys, and we see who’s actually on the product, who’s using the product, it’s a very family oriented,” Seti said. “It’s always been a family sport.”

Kawasaki Ultra 310X SE

On the map

One common consistency within the PWC market is current hot spots. Hot spots are spread across the nation which, for the most part, showing growth across the board.

NMMA reported that most hot spot areas saw between 3.5 to 7 percent growth in 2017 over 2016. The Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas market saw an 18 percent growth in 2017 over 2016, with flourishing lake areas, while the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Calif. Market experienced an impressive 40 percent growth in 2017 over 2016.

On the flip side, NMMA reported that both the Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and the Houston, Texas markets saw a 6 percent and 4 percent respective decrease from 2016 in 2017.

“Florida is always the No. 1 market by a large margin. The rest of North America is heavily steered by the weather,” McKercher said. “Texas lakes are full again, the Great Lakes area had a good summer, as did the Atlantic coastal states. California continues to be a big market and while some of the droughts have affected certain areas, the Colorado River is always a PWC mecca.”

Kawasaki Senior PR Coordinator Jon Rall said that they are continuing to see the St. Louis, Lake of the Ozarks area be a strong market.

“We map our data; it’s a strong concentration east of the Mississippi, and that makes sense, especially in the Upper Midwest, with all the rivers and the lakes, there’s so many places to use PWC,” Oventhal added. “It’s definitely still strong on those key coasts, but the Southeast is also very strong.”

Newer PWC offer more power and utility, and the ability to tow riders for water sports.

Seti said that the South has always been a stronghold for Yamaha and its respective dealers. The saltwater environment has always been a large focus. 

According to Seti, Yamaha has started putting more marketing effort into the Northeast. NMMA reported that both the New York market and the Philadelphia, Pa.-Wilmington, Del.-Trenton, N.J. market saw 10 percent and 3 percent growth, respectively in 2017 over 2016.

Looking ahead

The NMMA is predicting at least 7 percent growth in PWC this year.

“PWC will continue to be arguably the best gateway into boating because of access – access in every sense of the word; affordable, ease of operation, cost of ownership, with an incredible experience per dollar,” McKercher said. “PWC also enhance the boating experience for many as simply being part of their families fleet.”

Continued innovation to enhance overall ownership will be the name of the game in the future of the PWC market, McKercher said. 

Unlike the outboard engine market, the future of PWC isn’t just looking at creating the next machine with the most horsepower. Manufacturers are looking to meet needs of a multi-generational buyer completely across the board.

“I think we’re past the conversation where it’s all about horsepower. I think we’re seeing that this is now moving to a usage conversation,” Seti said. “How do people want to use their product on the water? What new technologies can we bring out there? What new sports activities can we help them enjoy? Is it tubing or fishing? How can they be more comfortable on the watercraft, so they can spend more time out on the water? It’s just not a performance message. It’s more about the usage and how people want to spend their time on the water.”

Sea-Doo GTR-X

Oventhal said that potential barriers to the growth of the PWC segment continue to be the same that manufacturers have been dealing with for quite some time.

“There’s still some places out there that organizations, like the American Watercraft Association, that are working really hard to open up some areas that are still off limits to jet skis and PWC,” Oventhal said. “I think right now there’s the economy’s is a little unstable. Like any power sport vehicle, if the economy starts having issues, power sports gets hit right away. I don’t see any short-term issues with fuel prices, but as you know, when those go up, dock fees are expensive, and these four-stroke high performance skis, they get thirsty. I don’t see anything that’s right in our face right now, but it’s just these little things that we’ve dealt with for years.”

Despite the potential barriers, most manufacturers in the PWC segment are hopeful for continued growth year over year and an increased range in buyer.

“I think the boating lifestyle seems to be very prevalent right now. You’ve got a lot of growth on a lot of lakes. You’ve got a younger consumer,” Seti said. “I was amazed at the boat shows this year, how we’re seeing couples in their late 20s, early 30s, and mid-30s, that are out there shopping for boats and personal watercraft. We’ve flipped over who’s shopping now with a younger audience coming in. I think we’re just going to see a whole new generation entering boating and personal watercraft. It doesn’t matter what type of boat you have, a personal watercraft is very complimentary to the boating lifestyle.”   

 

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