Once-reluctant buyers now putting wind in the sails of the boat business

January 17, 1993|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Contributing Writer

The boating business may finally be coming out of its recession-induced fog.

Harford County boat dealers and accessory and repair shops say consumers are no longer just browsing. They're buying again, raising hopes for a rebound in the local maritime industry after several dismal years.

"We are busy, extremely busy. I don't know what happened, but it's like somebody opened up the gates and let everybody out," said Anthony Tumas, sales manager for Tidewater Marina in Havre de Grace. "I can only assume things are going to be fantastic this year."

The state Department of Natural Resources reports the number of pleasure boats registered in Maryland and owned by state residents increased about 20 percent from 1986 to 1991. The number of pleasure boats owned by Harford County residents increased by about 36 percent during that period. Figures for 1992 are not yet available.

But John Burgreen, executive vice president of the Marine Trades Association in Annapolis, said those numbers don't accurately reflect the "disastrous" market from 1990 to 1992. Those years were tough for everyone in the boating business, he said.

"We've lost 100 percent of gross sales in new boats in the last two years," said Mr. Burgreen, also president of Annapolis Yacht Sales. "We had the worst October in the history of the company."

But after that bad month came the best November for sales Mr. Burgreen has ever recorded, and December 1992 proved a good month too.

The election of Bill Clinton and renewed confidence in the economy should boost sales this year, he said, predicting as much as a 30 to 40 percent gain in sales. Mr. Burgreen added that other dealers in Maryland, members of the Marine Trades group, are showing recent sales gains and equal optimism for recovery.

Mr. Tumas shared Mr. Burgreen's upbeat outlook.

"Business had been slow, and the spring and summer of '92 were terrible," he said. "Last summer it started to pick up. We've set sales records since, even to the point where we're adding a new boat line.

"I go home every night and hopefully pray to the right gods that things will continue."

Boat consumers shopping for new or used boats these days are more particular than in the past about getting the most value for their money, Mr. Tumas said.

Used sailboats at Tidewater Marina range from $5,000 to more than $100,000. New sailboats start around $20,000 and go up to $300,000. The best-selling boats now are in the 28- to 40-foot range, starting at $40,000 to $50,000.

Sales have picked up considerably over the past few months at Osborne Boat Sales in Havre de Grace as well, said owner Philip Osborne.

Boaters are buying across all price ranges in all sizes, he said. Mr. Osborne's cruisers, ranging from 25 to 27 feet with an average price tag of $40,000 to $60,000, are selling well. So are small bass fishing boats, which boaters can buy for about $4,000 and up.

"People are motivated by what they feel is a better economy, and there are stronger indications that interest rates may be rising because the economy is improving," Mr. Osborne said. "That is very encouraging since we haven't heard that kind of talk for what seems like decades.

"As opposed to last year, sales in December were up 200 percent. We've had our best December in five years, and January has been good too."

Mr. Osborne said power boats have been selling well, too, since November.

Some boat-related businesses have not done so well, however. At some, answering machines take calls or phones are simply no longer answered.

But companies that provide accessories or repairs for boat owners claim they haven't done badly at all, even at the depths of the recession. Dot McIntire, owner of the Canvas Shop on Wheels in Darlington, said her business has fared well since she opened in 1987.

Ms. McIntire's shop makes and repairs custom boat frames, canvas tops, enclosures and upholstery for boats. She won't reveal the company's revenues, but she said business has improved year to year.

"I have been really surprised," she said. "I think the thing that helps me out is people are buying used boats" -- and going to shops like hers to get custom upholstery or canvas enclosures.

At Pete's Cycle in Bel Air, which sells jet skis, other small water craft and related accessories, sales have inched upward each of the last two or three years, said Mike O'Shaughnessy, store manager.

He said a jet ski may satisfy a consumer who ultimately wants to buy a boat, but can't yet afford one.

And repossession centers, such as Boat Warehouse in Joppa, haven't seen the economic downturn hurt their business at all.

The company sells boats for other people or for dealerships that go bankrupt or close, said owner Paul Trapani. "We stand to benefit from a good or bad economy," he said.

"This economy has been fairly good for us. Obviously, that's not thecase for regular retailers. If you're selling a boat or a product for a boat for less than what's owed on it, it's not been a good time."

Boat Warehouse sells boats at wholesale prices. On a new boat, Mr. Trapani said, the wholesale cost may be half the suggested retail price. On a used boat, it is usually the cash value.

Mr. Trapani now has about 150 boats, ranging from 8 to 50 feet, at prices from a few hundred dollars to $350,000.

Arvid Scherpf, owner of Havre de Grace Yacht Sales, reported more interest in new and used boats this year.

The market for 1993 looks promising for boat dealers, he said, but adds that he doesn't expect anyone in the business to make great gains.

"The economy has touched a lot of people," he said. "We're all in the same boat -- no pun intended."

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