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Storm hits national boat sales

Since 1973, Hunter Scott had made sailboats, powerboats and custom-made lobster boats.

But he decided to close his Pocasset, Mass., shop in December, lay off half his staff and switch to cabinetry work as orders for the $300,000 vessels all but dried up.

"I had a lot of fun in the marine industry," he said. "But the economy has taken its toll."

Across the country, the $40-billion boating industry is struggling to weather a season of gloomy news.

A triple threat of falling consumer confidence, rising gas prices and the nation's economic downturn has pummeled the industry, changing the boating habits of recreational skippers while forcing layoffs, plant closures and corporate reorganizations the likes of which haven't been seen in nearly two decades.

"It's a challenging time," said Bill McGill, chairman and president of Clearwater's MarineMax Inc. The nation's largest recreational boat and yacht retailer recently laid off 10 percent of its work force as profit fell nearly 50 percent during the past fiscal year.

Industrywide, sales of new boats have been slipping virtually every month since mid 2004, when the nation's consumer confidence began to dip. Sales closed out the year down nearly 15 percent compared to last December, according to market research data.

Even more troubling: souring sales, which began with smaller and cheaper boats and progressed to 30-foot mid-sized models, are beginning to infiltrate the yacht market, where yearslong waiting lists for the 50-foot-plus multimillion dollar vessels are evaporating, said Marisa Thompson, an analyst at Morningstar.

That's a sign that even the wealthy are beginning to watch their pennies.

"A lot of people are holding out hope that things will turn around, that in another six to eight months they'll get a glimmer of a turnaround," Thompson said. "But that's up in the air right now. I don't see the catalyst on the horizon."

Since the beginning of 2007, Lake Forest, Ill., Brunswick Corp. — which manufactures more than a dozen boat brands including Bayliner, Sea Ray and Hatteras — closed or announced plans to mothball seven factories and laid off more than 1,300 workers as it realigns its business and cuts boat production by more than 10 percent.

The company's boat segment lost $81.4-million in 2007, weighed down by a hefty one-time charge and anemic sales.

The industry's downturn became particularly pronounced more than two years ago as the nation's housing sector began to falter and grew as each month progressed.

"We thought last fall that what was being experienced by the industry was as bad as it was going to get," said MarineMax's McGill. "(It) has actually gotten worse."

Until consumer confidence returns, industry executives said they're making an effort to reach out to customers, offering classes and excursions, focusing on overseas sales and developing fancy new models to win back U.S. shoppers when consumer confidence grows.

"When a recession first hits, the boating industry — like many of the other leisure industries — is the first to get hit and the last to bounce back," said Scott, 57. "Until that happens, it's going to be a little slow around the marinas."

Storm hits national boat sales 04/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 10:33am]
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