EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt of an article written by Kim Kavin and published by Soundings Trade Only, a trade publication covering the North American marine industry. Click here to read the article in full.
The year 2023 almost felt as if it was fighting against itself. On the one hand, economic headwinds persisted, with relentless inflation, flagging consumer and dealer confidence levels and high interest rates. On the other hand, a steady march of technological advancements heralded a bright future for recreational boating, with electrification and artificial-intelligence applications becoming more fact than fiction.
In some cases, there were major wins, including strong pushback against federal whale-related regulations that policy experts say are an existential threat to the entire marine industry. In other cases, there were major losses, including the $85 million that a cyberattack cost Brunswick Corp. this past summer. All the while, top brands continued to expand operations, make key acquisitions and launch new products, showing just how adaptable and committed the industry is to success, no matter what challenges materialize.
Here’s a look at some of the key developments from the past 12 months, with an eye toward the industry’s major areas of discussion ahead of the new year.
A Challenging Economy
Few things were more top-of-mind this year than the economy, which challenged boatbuilders, dealers and the industry as a whole. Interest rates remained at their highest point in two decades, with expectations that they would remain well above prepandemic levels into at least 2026.
At the same time, inflation dogged consumers in their everyday purchases, including at the grocery store. Even the Girl Scouts raised the price of their cookies by a buck a box. While inflation had retreated significantly in the second half of 2023 from its June 2022 high of 9.1% year-on-year, the U.S. Department of Labor was still reporting inflation coming in above expectations in monthly reports toward the end of the year, putting hard numbers to the feelings that consumers had across the country.
“The decline in consumer confidence was evident across all age groups, and notably among consumers with household incomes of $50,000 or more,” Dana Peterson, chief economist at The Conference Board, stated in a September press release. She added that the proportion of consumers saying recession was somewhat likely or very likely rose that month, too.
For the marine industry, these trends translated into sagging dealer sentiment, with the monthly and the three- to five-year outlooks well below neutral by the end of the summer. As of August, more than half of the dealers who responded to the monthly Pulse Report survey reported declines in new- and used-boat sales. As one dealer put it, there was simply “a lot of price pushback on everything from boats to service to even parts and accessories.”