Knoxville dealers report rise in retail boat sales

Daren Hatfield, right, and his girlfriend, Lisa Price, take a new Bayliner 185 for a spin Saturday on Norris Lake. Hatfield bought his first new boat from Sea Ray of Knoxville on Wednesday. Boat sales are up six percent both locally and nationally for the year. (Chad Greene/Special to the News Sentinel)

Photo by Chad Greene, 2012 // Buy this photo

Daren Hatfield, right, and his girlfriend, Lisa Price, take a new Bayliner 185 for a spin Saturday on Norris Lake. Hatfield bought his first new boat from Sea Ray of Knoxville on Wednesday. Boat sales are up six percent both locally and nationally for the year. (Chad Greene/Special to the News Sentinel)


Knoxville area boat dealers say they are riding a crest in sales this year, even if business is not at the level it was before the recession.

Local sales trends fit with a recent report released by the National Marine Manufacturers Association, which says that for the first time since 2006, retail sales of recreational boats are on the rise across the country, with sales up about 6 percent in 2011. Several Knoxville area dealers report even higher sales.

Sales of recreational boats, accessories and marine services reached $32.3 billion in 2011, and retail sales of new power and sail boats increased 0.8 percent to 214,405 boats, according to the association’s annual Recreational Boating Statistical Abstract, released this month.

Steve Sloan, owner of Madisonville Marine, 3305 Highway 411 North in Madisonville, said sales are indeed on the rise for most area boat dealers, although this needs to be kept in perspective.

“A lot of dealers were probably off 50 percent over the last five years and are just starting to head back up,” he said. “I think it’s going to take us a couple more years but I think we will get back to where we were.”

Sloan estimates his sales are up 25 percent over the last 11 months.

The manufacturers association says the boating industry is turning around.

“The new data signals the beginning of a recovery for the U.S. Recreational boating industry,” the association said in a statement.

Sales of aluminum power boats, especially fishing and pontoon boats, seemed to be driving the increased business, the report said. Sales of these boats were up 4 percent to 77,150 aluminum boats in 2011.

Knoxville boat dealers report a similar trend.

“Especially the pontoon boats have been in big demand,” said Pepper Marcum, owner of Sea Ray of Knoxville, 115 Perimeter Park Road.

Sloan said pontoon boats are also major sellers at his dealership. Jordan Felts, salesman at American Boat Center, 10250 Cogdill Road, said bow riders — popular for water skiing and general lake recreation — are big sellers. Felts also said sales are up considerably for American Boat Sales, although he did not know the percentage.

The manufacturers association report notes several factors influencing increased boat sales.

“Pent-up demand for boats following years of diminished willingness to spend by consumers, improved credit availability for buyers and boating businesses, positive shifts in consumer confidence and an overall interest in the benefits of the boating lifestyle are steering the industry toward recovery,” Thom Dammrich, association president, said in a statement.

Knoxville area boat dealers tend to agree with most, but not all of the report’s analysis. The credit situation could be better, Marcum and Sloan said.

“We are still having problems as far as financing a boat for customers, however, the credit unions have been very aggressive about helping,” Marcum said.

Sloan said financing is a bit better for customers, although floor plan financing for dealers has not improved much at all. Floor plan financing is a line of credit that allows dealers to borrow money using their inventory as collateral.

Felts said the economy has improved a little and there is a lot of pent-up demand.

“I think there are a lot of people who have been holding off the last couple of years and decided this year to buy a boat,” he said.

Sloan and Marcum agreed.

“Everybody was so afraid for so long and I believe now that everybody is relaxing a little bit more, and finally loosening up,” she said.

Sloan, who promoted a boat show at the Knoxville Expo Center in early 2011, said at that time that boat sales seemed to be stabilizing, although it appeared that younger boat customers, those aged 25 to 40, were disappearing from showrooms. There was still plenty of interest in boats from older customers, but the younger ones, who are dealing with mortgages, job insecurity, car payments and such, were just trying to hang on to what they had.

Sloan said that in 2012 younger buyers still have not come back. Most buyers remain older customers. However, there is an emerging trend, he said. Madisonville Marine has had a few parents and grandparents buying boats for their grown children as something the whole family can enjoy.

“What is happening now sometimes with the younger crowd is if they are buying a tournament boat or a ski boat, nine times out of ten, dad or granddad is there to actually pay for it,” he said. “It’s kind of an intergenerational thing.”


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