Boat retailers report smoother sailing as economy, sales recover

gmartin@islandpacket.comJuly 2, 2012 

The stormy waters of the recession have calmed for some area boat retailers, making for smoother economic sailing and increased sales.

"We're only halfway through the year, and sales are already where they were for all of 2011," said Larry Jordan, owner of Lighthouse Yacht Sales on Hilton Head Island.

In trying to sell his luxury boats, nearly all of which cost more than $100,000, Jordan says he has to keep one eye on his inventory and another on the stock market.

"Anytime the (Dow Jones Industrial Average) gets above 12,000, people are more likely to pull out their wallets," he said. "It's all about the economy."

About 12,600 boats were registered in Beaufort County in 2011, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. The DNR couldn't provide the number of newly registered boats in the county this year, but Ann Webster of Webster Marine in Okatie says that figure is likely to rise.

"Sales are definitely up this year," she said, estimating a 30 percent bump over 2011. "We're seeing everything pick up. I think the economy's changing, thank goodness."

Billy Douglas, owner of Marine Sales and Solutions on Hilton Head, sees better boat sales as an indicator of an improving economy. Boats are luxury items, he said, less likely to be purchased during the depths of a recession.

Douglas says his sales this year are double what they were at this time last year, and his customers' increasing tendency to pay cash suggests an eagerness to splurge after years of belt-tightening.

"It's just amazing, the difference between this year and last," he said. "People are ready to move on something, and it's showing."

He added that Beaufort County's reputation as a destination for boaters along the East Coast will help the local economy.

"I think the word's getting out," he said, estimating there are 35 landings and more than 2,000 boat slips in the county. "For so long, it's been tied at the hip to golf, but there's a lot more to offer."

But for one dealer, the rising tide of sales didn't come soon enough.

The recession's effect on sales was "terrible, just terrible," said Ashley McElveen of McElveen Marine, the Beaufort business she owns with her husband, Ricky. "Everything was just so slow in 2010 and 2011."

She estimates that sales dropped more than half from their pre-recession levels, and their remaining customers weren't in the market for their high-end inventory.

"Last year, we'd see people coming in and asking what they could buy with $2,600," she says, with a rueful laugh. "We'd say, 'I don't know, maybe a trailer?' "

The 22-percent uptick in sales her business saw this year over 2011 to date wasn't enough. The couple recently began selling tires instead, citing lower overhead costs and more consistent demand.

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