Challenge, opportunity and growth: Our market forecast for marine fabricators
By Jeff Rasmussen
The U.S. marine fabric market has been in a state of flux in 2007 and 2008. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, OEM boat sales could be down about 25-30 percent for 2008. Marine fabric suppliers experienced approximately a 15 to 20 percent drop in growth in 2008. This downward trend will likely continue through the third quarter of 2009, which is essentially the end of the boating season. It probably will be 2010 before the boat and the marine fabric markets see some positive growth. Some boat manufacturers have scheduled periodic production furloughs for the first half of 2009 to reduce production rates. Because the health of the U.S. boating and marine fabric markets can vary based on locale, in some areas marine fabricators are holding their own. Yes, more people are holding onto their boats, rather than buying new ones—but they are investing in them. This has increased the boat refurbishing and repair business for many fabricators.
In 2008, consumption of fabric by U.S. and Canadian marine end-product manufacturers was 20.5 million square yards, a decrease of about 6 percent from the 21.8 million square yards consumed in 2007. IFAI market research services predicts another negative growth rate of roughly –5 percent for this market in 2009, to 19.5 million square yards of fabric consumed.
As with other specialty fabrics market segments, the major obstacle for the marine fabric market has been a sluggish U.S. economy: a soft housing market (home values decreasing 15-20 percent), a tight credit market, high fuel costs (although prices have come down quite a bit since July 2008), inexpensive imports from Southeast Asia, and spending-conscious boat consumers waiting for the U.S. and world economy to stabilize. Because many boats are purchased with loans, the global credit crunch means the recession is biting harder on boat sales than in previous economic downturns. Cool, damp weather in the spring and summer in the midwest, mid-Atlantic and other areas was another factor limiting growth in the marine market in 2008.
Some marine fabricators have had a difficult time finding and retaining qualified employees, a continuing issue that hinders their ability to expand their businesses. The seasonal nature of the boat and marine fabrication market is another limiting factor.
The U.S. economy is expected to improve by the fourth quarter of 2009. Unfortunately, this is too late for the marine fabric market in 2009, whose season basically ends after the third quarter. The prospects for improvement in the U.S. economy could well depend on the success of the federal government’s recently passed second economic stimulus package of $787 billion. If the U.S. economy does improve in the second half of 2009, weaknesses in the auto and financial businesses should also begin to abate, which should help lead the way to some positive growth for the marine market in 2010.
Outlook > Marine fabrication
Fabric suppliers see the marine market in a severe downturn because of the weakening U.S. and world economy, as well as cautious customer purchasing for the remainder of 2009. Until the economy does rebound, the OEM market segment will be sluggish. Price-conscious marine fabricators will continue to seek less expensive imported fabrics. This continued influx of imports (not just from Asia) will erode market shares for the market leaders. If the weather is warmer and sunnier in 2009, the marine fabric market may still face decreases, but not as much as in 2008.
Marine fabricators see the market slowly coming back if the economy begins to improve in 2009. The current slump in boat sales will change how they market their products and services. There will be more use of the Internet, discounting of prices, increasing advertising budgets, and increasing product features as they relate to sustainability trends. Technology will continue to improve, particularly in stitching and hot and dielectric welding. Fabricators see raw material prices remaining high compared to the past (before 2007). Like fabric manufacturers, they see more fabric being sourced outside of the U.S. They also feel that their industry will continue to have a hard time finding skilled craftspeople for custom work.