Hope in the aging buyer
Exclusive research from Info-Link shows average buyer age varies widely by brand, segment
By now, it’s a well-worn statement: The average boat buyer is aging at a notable rate. It’s a frequent topic of discussion at industry events, dealer meetings and sales conferences.
Each year, the average age of the new boat buyer is about six months older than it was the year before, said Peter Houseworth, director of client services for Info-Link.
“The people that are buying new boats today continue to be older and get older each year,” Houseworth said.
But new research from Info-Link, provided exclusively to Boating Industry, shows that even within that general trend, there are significant variations by brand and segment.
Jet boats’ youth appeal
From 1998 to 2011, the average buyer of a new boat has gained about six years in average age (see chart p. 13). That’s about three times the rate of increase of the general population, which increased by 1.9 years to 37.2 years old between the 2000 and 2010 census.
The Info-Link data is derived from registration information across the United States.
When examined by propulsion type, some groups have aged less than others.
Most notably, the average buyer of a jet boat only increased 4.6 years to 45.9 over the 14-year period Info-Link examined. This trend has not been lost on boat builders, as several new companies have jumped into the jet boat market in recent months (see article p. 8).
Personal watercraft is the only other propulsion category to have an average buyer younger than 50 years old. However, PWCs had the largest increase in average buyer age, up 7.4 years to 47 years old. This is similar to the aging of buyers of land-based powersports – the average motorcycle buyer has aged from 40 to 49 years old since 2001, according to J.D. Power & Associates.
The average outboard buyer was 53 years old in 2011, a 6.8-year increase from 1998. Inboard (up 6.4 years) and sterndrive buyers (up 6 years) aged slightly less to 50.1 years old in 2011. Sailboat buyers continue to be the oldest group at 56.1 years of age in 2011, although that age is only up 5.3 years from 1998 and has actually declined since 2009’s high of 57.7.
Pre-owned, first-time buyers older, too
Still, whatever the category, it’s clear the trend is older. That applies to buyers of pre-owned boats as well, many of whom are first-time buyers. Although not examined for this study, earlier research (see May 2012 Boating Industry) shows there is not a significant difference in age.
“New vs. pre-owned – they’re not fundamentally different people,” Houseworth said. “That’s one of the things that strikes us about this – new or pre-owned, you name your segment … it’s just universal.”
Even when examined by boat length, the buyers of smaller boats – those most likely to be entry-level buyers – are only slightly younger. The biggest gap is in sterndrives, where the average buyer of a 15- to 19-foot boat is 48.8 years old, 1.3 years younger than the average sterndrive buyer. In other categories, the difference is less than one year.
Not surprisingly, average age increases as vessel length increases. In the 30+-foot segment, the average sterndrive and outboard buyers are both 53.5 years old, while the average sail and inboard buyers are more than 56 years old. Even at that length, the average buyer age has increased about five years since 1998.
Ski boats buyers youngest
When we take a look at average buyer age by boat type and brand, there are more interesting differences.
Ski boats have had the youngest average buyer over the last five years, coming in at 44 years old. That’s significantly younger than any other category, although three other segments (runabouts, bass boats and small cruisers) come in under 50 years old.
The oldest segment for powerboats is pontoons, with an average age of 55.1 for buyers over the past five years. Despite efforts to market pontoons to a younger buyer, it appears the segment still skews older – but with an older average buyer across all boat types, that may explain more than anything else the increased popularity of the market.
In the pontoon category, Lowe Boats has the youngest average age at 52.6 years. While the company still sees a predominantly middle-aged customer (60 percent of their buyers are between 45 and 64), Lowe is having success reaching out to younger buyers.
From graphics to stereos and wakeboard towers, Lowe is introducing features to appeal to a younger demographic, said marketing manager Beverly Ramsey.
Lowe’s marketing focuses on that youth message as well with headlines like “Proven Thrills” in ads aimed at wakeboarders promoting the new X-Series and “Proven Fun,” aimed at young families with children.
Lowe hasn’t seen the full effect of its “Proven Thrills” X-Series campaign yet, said product manager Jordan Rockstad, but he expects it to help Lowe tap into a younger crowd going forward.
With the economic impact of the recession, Rockstad also speculated that it might be those older, retired buyers that were less affected
buying a boat for the entire family.
“Grandma and Grandpa may have been the ones who could afford the boat, but they wanted to buy something that was going to be fun or considered cool for everybody,” he said.
Nautic Global Group marketing director Steve Tadd echoed that sentiment, saying that as long as younger people have access to a boat, the average buyer age doesn’t pose a significant problem for the industry.
“I think there’s probably a lot more buyers … where they are buying it in order for their families to use it,” he said. “We’re seeing more of these multi-generational kind of boats, which is probably why pontoon boats and deck boats have done so well. The numbers I would look at most closely are participation … and it seems like those continue to go up.”
Nautic Global Group has brands at both ends of the age spectrum. Hurricane, at 54.7 years old, has easily the highest average age in the runabout segment. Rinker, on the other hand, is the youngest (44.7 years) in the small cruiser segment and second youngest (48.7 years) in large cruisers.
Hurricane is unique in that it is entirely a deck boat line, with 39 different deck boat models under the brand. Many of the other brands in the runabout category carry a wider range of boats.
Hurricane is aimed squarely at the baby boomer buyer who is looking for something that offers high capacity and versatility, but isn’t ready to move into a pontoon, said Hurricane brand manager Andy Lindstrom.
“The growing popularity of pontoons has helped Hurricane in a way,” he said. “We do a little bit of everything pretty well, with the performance of a V-hull.”
While Nautic has aimed Rinker at a younger, value-conscious buyer, even the team there was surprised by the broad difference in ages between their product and others in the cruiser category. The marketing message for Rinker is built around statements like “Why pay more?” and “Compare and save,” for instance.
“One of the things we focus on with Rinker is having a lot of boat for your money,” Tadd said. “That naturally attracts an entry-level buyer, someone buying their first new boat.”
Read more: Average age varies greatly by segment, brand