Pandemic-driven Canadian boat sales could face supply shortages

Carolyn Burgess has run the family business for 15 years. Typically at this time of year, she has half of her Scarborough, Ont. marine 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 focus is on finding new customers, instead of going downstairs and just ‘selling, selling, selling’,” said Burgess, owner and operator of The Rigging Shoppe Ltd.

The annual trade show is a crucial event for Canada’s marine industry and typically attracts over 70,000 visitors to the Enercare Center at the Toronto Fairgrounds. This year it is a virtual marketplace where buyers can connect with merchants offering sales and seminars.

Hundreds of familiar vendors attend, but none know exactly how much business to expect. Either way, many in the industry are gearing up for another great boating season after last year’s surge in sales caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Who knew all we needed was a pandemic to revive the Canadian marine industry? Burgess joked.

As a marine retailer, known in the industry as hardware, The Rigging Shoppe is a first stop for many new boaters, and there were plenty in 2020.

“In the spring, when people were thinking about what to do with their leisure budget, they couldn’t travel. They didn’t eat at the restaurant. They needed an outlet to spend money, while self-isolating – 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 service 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 been selling boats in the Greater Toronto Area for nearly two decades. “Many of the boats we listed last year took less than six weeks to sell, and in some cases multiple buyers were looking at the same boat, and sellers were getting their asking price, which is virtually unheard of on the Greats Lakes.

“I think it was just a convenient, safe, interesting escape, and for a lot of people [boating] ended up superseding summer travel plans.

The problem ahead for the used boat market and marine retailers will be supply, not demand. Woodman said many customers who listed their boats with Breezeway actually took them off the market in 2020, to keep their boats for 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 makers, also said it saw sales increase. Among other brands, Brunswick also owns the Boston Whaler, a popular fishing boat. Brunswick’s third quarter net sales increased 24% from the same period a year ago.

“Sales increased across the board,” said Chris Drees, president of Mercury Marine. “But one area where we saw huge 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 going virtual can actually help with product supply, Drees said, as it will likely drive 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 have trouble outfitting it.

“There have been so many delays because of COVID,” Burgess said, pointing to issues importing product from overseas due to manufacturing stoppages.

“There is a limited amount of inventory in the pipeline, so there will be shortages everywhere. Buy early would be my message.

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