Sunday, June 03, 2001

Summertime, and the spending is easy

Boat, RV dealers on pace for record year

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer Contributor

        Consumers appear to see blue skies ahead as they make purchases for their summer recreation, retailers said last week.

        Many companies that sell big-ticket recreational items report sales are steady or even increasing compared with last year. That fact leads them to question the depth of the economic downturn.

        “We're not seeing what everybody else seems to be seeing,” said Kent Frye, general manager of Bethel Marine Center in Batavia Township. “It's really strange. You'd think sales would be down, but big-ticket items are not down at all. I think the economy's stronger than what people are led to believe.”

[photo] Owner Larry Bolender (left) and Kent Frye, general manager of Bethel Marine Center in Batavia Township have seen 2001 sales running 5 percent ahead of the same period last year.
(Gary Landers photo)
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        Mr. Frye checked his sales figures and verified that, to date, Bethel's sales for 2001 are running 5 percent ahead of the same period last year. And last year was a record-breaker.

        Mr. Frye is sold out of many of his larger boats — those that carry six-figure price tags — and has seen an increase in purchases of less-expensive crafts, too.

        “With interest rates what they are ... I haven't seen rates on recreational vehicles this low, ever,” he said. Rates have declined to about 8 percent for a purchase above $25,000, compared with about 10 percent at the beginning of the year, he said.

        Hern Marine is seeing a lot of first-time boat buyers and flotillas of families trading up, co-owner Ron Cummins said.

        “Long-term financing makes it very affordable,” he said. “Some people have opted, in lieu of taking a vacation away from home this year, they're putting their money toward monthly payments on a boat, and taking little mini-vacations instead of one big one.”

        Mr. Cummins reported that his company has not seen any downturn in the past few months.

        “We thought recreational purchases would be slightly hindered, but we're on pace for another record year.”

        In March, the Fairfield dealership opened a second sales location in Florence. The new store has been substantially ahead of projections, Mr. Cummins said, especially in sales of boating accessories.

[photo] Matt Farrer (standing) says it was cheaper for his family to drive to Naples, Fla., than fly. So he bought a cargo carrier for his van at Delightful Days RV Center in Walton, where Scott Bryant installed it last week.
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        Even as Tristate residents are preparing to head for the water in record numbers, they have been buying fewer recreational vehicles. But the small slump might be over as the warm breezes of summer begin.

        “The last month, it has picked up. I think we've had our slow season,” said Bill Trammell, who owns Cincinnati Coleman Camper in Mason. “Gas (prices) don't seem like it's bothered it. Maybe slowed RVs down to a certain extent. But people are just not going to give up their family good times. I think it's going to bust wide open from here on out.”

        Mike Bryant isn't so sure.

        “Between banks holding them off and the gas prices, people are definitely holding back,” said the owner of Delightful Days RV Center in Walton.

        But he reported good sales for equipment, such as pop-up campers.

        “If bigger items aren't selling as well, we see the smaller items selling,” he said. “I think weather has something to do with it. People didn't have the urgency before Memorial Day.”

        Several retailers attributed softer sales to May's capricious weather.

        “Rain, rain, rain — it's not hot enough,” said Jim Scott, sales manager of Cincinnati Pool and Patio in Evendale. “It's less the economy than the weather.”

        Mr. Scott said his company's business in in-ground pools has remained steady because folks who make such purchases have planned and budgeted for them. A decision to install an above-ground pool tends to be spur-of-the-moment and highly influenced by a warm, dry spell.

        “It's instant gratification,” Mr. Scott said. “The value means nothing to those people; it's who can put it in quickest.”

        Said Steve Bell, general manager of Patio Enclosures Inc. in Sharonville: “Even when times are tough, people will invest in their homes. Our customers are largely in the 40-to-70 age range. They don't do a lot of financing.”

        Mr. Bell, like several of his retail counterparts, said Cincinnati-area residents tend to save for large recreational purchases, so economic fluctuations don't have a large impact on major expenditures.

        “The thing I see more than anything is the individual who is retired or has just retired, seeing his stock portfolio down,” said Charlie Jung, owner of Colerain Trailer Center. “He says, "Maybe I don't need to buy a new RV this year. I'll keep the one I have and wait a year or two.' Those who don't own one are buying. We see plenty of families trading, buying up.

        “It has nothing to do with gasoline. When someone is spending $80,000 to $150,000 on an RV, what does $500 more in gasoline for a trip mean to them? Nothing. They're not buying an RV to save money. They're buying it because it's their lifestyle.”

        Lifestyle choices also drive boat purchases, Mr. Cummins said.

        “We sell family fun,” he said. “Parents, even when their kids are grown, purchase a boat for their family. Boating brings everybody back together again.”

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