Boat shows seeing uptick in sales

Published online: Aug 23, 2011 News Andrew Kenney -
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Plush boats with sparkling paint jobs and chromed propellers drew the ginger touches and longing gazes of about 4,500 boat show attendees at the State Fairgrounds this weekend.

The sales people faced a formidable task after two weeks of ominous economic news: persuade buyers to make a hefty purchase that loses value and requires almost constant maintenance.

"It's not a necessity," said Bill Fogleman, a salesman for Boats Unlimited. "You don't live in it, and you can't take it to work."

Attendance at the Carolina Fall Boat Show & Sale is down 10 percent since the economy crashed in 2008, and new boat sales nationwide dropped 40 percent during that period, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Yet vendors at the show this weekend were cheerfully optimistic, generally reporting that their sales figures have improved slightly in 2011 compared to last year.

The best sellers, they said, have been high-end boats and used vessels.

Fogleman said Boats Unlimited NC, his employer, has sold more $50,000-plus pontoon boats this year than in any before. "People with money have still got money," he said.

Gary Huggins, a Texan who makes seats for boats, also has seen an uptick in business.

"I'm not thrilled, but I'm pleased," said Huggins, who owns Marine Molding. He believes his sales are improving because people want to make a permanent purchase instead of flushing money away for one-time trips.

Keith Scott, meanwhile, saved his business by shifting its focus from new boats to restored vessels, he said. It's a significant flip from the 1980s, when he competed with six new-boat dealers in Raleigh, he said.

Low oil prices back then ensured cheap plastic for boat construction, he said. A popular sailboat sold in the 1980s for the equivalent of about $8,100 dollars today, while the same model now costs $15,000 new, he said.

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