Carolyn Burgess has run the family business for 15 years. Typically at this time of year she has half of her Scarborough, Ont. Maritime retail store packaged and displayed in a booth at the Toronto International Boat Show. But this year, the show is going virtual.
“This year my goal is to find new customers, instead of going down and just ‘sell, sell, sell,’ said Burgess, owner and operator of The Rigging Shoppe Ltd.
The annual trade fair is a pivotal event for Canada’s marine industry and typically attracts over 70,000 visitors to the Enercare Center at Exhibition Place in Toronto. This year it is a virtual marketplace where buyers can connect with traders offering sales and seminars.
Hundreds of familiar vendors are participating, but none are sure how much business to expect. Regardless, many in the industry are bracing for another big boating season after last year’s surge in sales caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Who knew that all we needed was a pandemic to revive the Canadian marine industry? Burgess joked.
As a marine products retailer, known in the industry as rigging, The Rigging Shoppe is a first stop for many new boaters, and there were plenty in 2020.
“In the spring, when people were wondering what to do with their leisure money, they couldn’t travel. They did not eat outside. They needed an outlet to spend the money, while isolating themselves – so bingo, they bought a boat, ”Burgess said.
Prior to this boom, however, the used boat market in Canada had been in decline for more than a decade, according to Perry Woodman, owner of brokerage firm Breezeway Yachts Inc.
But 2020 has changed that.
“Typically, it takes about 12 months to sell a used boat in North America,” said Woodman, who has sold boats in the GTA for almost two decades. “A lot of the boats that we put up for sale last year took less than six weeks to sell, and in some cases we would have multiple buyers looking at the same boat, and the sellers were getting their asking price, which is virtually unheard of on the Great Lakes.
“I think it was just a practical, safe and interesting escape, and for a lot of people [boating] ended up replacing summer travel plans.
The issue ahead for the used boat market and marine retailers will be supply, not demand. Woodman said many customers who have put their boats up for sale through Breezeway have actually taken them off the market in 2020, in order to keep the boats to themselves. It was also more difficult to ship used boats from the United States due to border restrictions.
Mercury Marine Ltd., a division of Brunswick Corporation, and one of the most popular outboard motor manufacturers, said it has also seen sales increase. Among other brands, Brunswick also owns the Boston Whaler, a popular fishing vessel. Brunswick’s third quarter net sales were up 24 percent from the same period a year ago.
“Sales have increased across the board,” said Chris Drees, president of Mercury Marine. “But, one area where we saw tremendous growth was in mid-range engines, which are often sold to entry-level boaters.”
Engines were in high demand for new boats in 2020, but Mercury’s inventory for the 2021 season is healthy, Drees said.
Trade shows like the boat show that go virtual can actually help product supply, Drees said, as they will likely push demand later in the year, allowing manufacturers to catch up.
Meanwhile, boaters who manage to get their hands on a new or used boat this year could face problems equipping it.
“There have been so many delays because of COVID,” Burgess said, highlighting problems importing products from overseas due to manufacturing shutdowns.
“There is a limited supply of inventory in the pipeline, so there will be shortages everywhere. Buying early would be my message.