REGIONAL— The phones rarely stop ringing at Aronson Boat Works these days, and the conversations with would-be customers are pretty predictable. If you’d like to buy a boat, motor, or …
REGIONAL— The phones rarely stop ringing at Aronson Boat Works these days, and the conversations with would-be customers are pretty predictable. If you’d like to buy a boat, motor, or most any of the accompanying accessories, we’ll put you on the list— but it’s a long list.
It’s the same story at marinas across the region, as an unprecedented spike in demand for marine products, as with many other manufactured goods, has run head-on into a supply crunch that shows no signs of easing anytime soon. The situation has turned a business that is already busy for the mom-and-pop owners of many area marinas, into an all-consuming experience.
“April was especially over the top,” said John Niemiste, who operates Aronson with his wife Gretchen. “And it was the busiest fishing opener we’ve ever seen.”
The Niemistes are used to a hectic pace during peak season at their marina on Lake Vermilion, but they say they’ve never experienced such high demand for their product and services as they’ve seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago last March.
It’s not the only outdoor industry that’s been affected. Demand for a wide range of outdoor recreational gear jumped sharply as Americans adapted to indoor health restrictions by getting outside.
The trend caught many by surprise, which has only exacerbated the shortages. “When COVID took off, I didn’t think I would sell anything last year,” said Chris Raridon, who owns and operates Frank’s Marine on Pelican Lake in Orr. “Instead, it went crazy. I think people were just tired of being locked in the house.”
At the same time, the stimulus packages passed by Congress over the past year have also put more money into the pockets of most Americans, notes Raridon, who believes some of those dollars trickled down to marine dealers.
If customers weren’t looking for new boats or motors, they were looking to service equipment they hadn’t used in a while. “We had a lot of people come in with boats that hadn’t been run in four or five years,” said Raridon.
Others opted for used boats and motors, given that new product isn’t available.
“The used market has gone crazy,” said Raridon. “I talked to one guy who said he put his used boat on Craigslist for five minutes and had ten calls from people with cash in hand who wanted it.”
If people can’t find boats to buy, they’re looking to rent. “Our rental business has been up like we’ve never experienced,” said Jeff Sanborn, who owns and operates Handberg’s Marine in Crane Lake with his wife Lori.
While they may be at the literal end of the road, that isolation hasn’t kept the impact of the product shortage at bay. “Boats we ordered for customers back in December haven’t even been built yet,” said Sanborn. “Outboards we ordered a year ago have still not been delivered.”
Sanborn said the industry is facing a combination of a huge and unforeseen spike in demand for products at a time when manufacturers are experiencing shortages of both the parts they need as well as manpower to assemble it all. “One of their big challenges is shipping [of parts],” said Sanborn. “Asian shipping is way up and companies can’t get [shipping] containers as a result.”
Since boat manufacturers rely on components manufactured in Asia in some cases, the shipping showdown has slowed their ability to maintain a steady production flow. “Even if you’re missing just one part, you can’t run a line,” noted Sanborn.
Niemiste notes that even when manufacturers have been able to obtain parts, they’ve also struggled to attract the workers they need. “Lund is looking into robotic riveters because they can’t find people,” he said.
The situation has created a quandary for marina operators, since they have seemingly endless demand for a product they currently can’t supply. For a time, Niemiste was traveling sometimes hundreds of miles to pick up product from other dealers who were willing to part with excess stock. But that’s not possible anymore, since virtually no marine dealer has any stock remaining. “We’re out of product to sell at this point,” said Niemiste. “And I know I’m not going to get anything else in this summer. Anything that does come in is already sold.”
Raridon agreed there’s little point in searching from other dealers at this point. “I have people calling from other parts of the country looking for things like motors. That tells there’s nothing available there, either.”
The situation is frustrating to customers as well as marina operators, and it that has added another layer of stress as owners and staff try to deal with potential customers who aren’t used to hearing “no” when they have cash they want to spend. “You have to get a little short with people at times,” said Niemiste.
Raridon acknowledges that some customers get frustrated, but he said most now recognize that the shortage of manufactured products is not confined to the marine industry. “You can’t get anything right now,” said Raridon. “Car lots are sitting nearly empty. It’s months of waiting to buy something like an ATV,” he said. “So, most people have been pretty good.”
The supply crunch in so many sectors has encouraged some customers to order earlier than ever. Niemiste said he’s had people putting down money in May for boats that likely won’t be delivered before next summer. Raridon said he’s seeing the same thing, and that’s why he expects no short-term letup in the intense pace being experienced by marinas across the region. “I think it’s going to be another decent year next year,” he said.
In fact, Niemiste notes that some forecasters for the industry see strong demand for marine products through at least the next 3-5 years. While the industry has certainly been impacted by the effects of the pandemic, Niemiste suggests there may be more to it. “We’ve basically changed to a new generation [of buyers],” he said.
Finding down time
While the marine business in the North Country has always been intense in the spring, and to a lesser extent in the fall as marinas prep boats for winter storage, there were times for marina owners and workers to catch their breath.
Where do these business owners find time for a personal life? “Right now, we don’t have one,” said Sanborn. “You throw in some community service, like being on the fire department, and no, you don’t have a life outside of that.”
For the Niemistes, winter used to offer a break and they would often spend at least a month in Florida as a way to unwind from the hectic pace the rest of the year. “But we really didn’t get that this past winter,” said Gretchen Niemiste. “We did get to Florida, but we were on the email all the time, trying to keep up with everyone wanting boats and motors,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t the break it used to be. Our business has really become year-round.”
The intense nature of the business can be daunting at times. When first contacted by the Timberjay for this story, the usually cheerful and upbeat Lori Sanborn said she simply didn’t any time to talk. “I’ve got ten different things going on,” she said, sounding a bit exasperated.
It was a feeling that the Niemistes say they know well. John said he tries to take at least a moment out of the day to do something for himself, even if it’s just buying something he needs at the store. He and Gretchen are in the process of building a small boat access cabin as a kind of retreat. “We call it our mental health cabin,” he said.
Jeff Sanborn that the pace can be draining at times, and said there’s no end in sight. “You expect it to be busy in the spring, but now it looks like we’ll going at this pace at least through August,” he said.