CADILLAC — The U.S. economy has bounced back faster than many experts initially believed it would following several weeks of business closures, and nowhere in Northern Michigan is that consumer resilience more evident than in the recreation industry.
Boat makers, bicycle retailers and canoe liveries throughout the area all report explosions in sales well above what they typically would be seeing this time of year.
"We're seeing sales we haven't seen in 25 years," said Christophe Lavigne, president of the U.S. brands for Groupe Beneteau, a Cadillac-based boat manufacturer that for many years went by the name of Four Winns.
"We can't build boats fast enough. We didn't know what the situation would be in the spring but this is very unusual."
Lavigne estimated that their sales are up by 200% compared to last year at this time, with about 50% of that business new customers.
"These are new families and new commerce," Lavigne said. "We're going to be moving up (production) by 25% in the next month."
Due to social distancing requirements imposed on manufacturers by the governor's office, Lavigne said the ability to expand their workforce to increase production is limited, however, they are figuring out ways to increase efficiency while adhering to the state mandates.
"We have about six weeks of experience working under those restrictions," Lavigne said. "We're not at full capacity right now but we're trying to increase production."
While the sales boost is a big help, Lavigne said they're still bogged down considerably by severe tariffs imposed on their products by China and Europe as a result of the ongoing trade dispute between those countries and the U.S.
"It's destroyed our international sales," Lavigne said.
As for why sales are going through the roof right now in the U.S., Lavigne said he believes it's because people are ready to get outside and have fun following the weeks and months of lockdown. He said the appeal of recreational activities like boating and bicycling is that people can do them close to home and away from large groups.
Allen Garrow, manager of McLain Cycle and Fitness in Cadillac, said their sales have jumped 30% — an increase that started even before the state's Stay Home, Stay Safe order was lifted.
"It started when the lockdown started and people got their 'Trump change' (stimulus payments)," Garrow said. "Our curbside and online sales started to surge."
Similar to Group Beneteau, Garrow said much of the spike in their sales is from new customers, many who were looking for "base models" in the $500 to $800 range. Garrow said a lot of the new business came from clients downstate, where many retailers ran out of inventory.
Anticipating that bike sales would rise as spring transitioned to summer, Garrow said McLain's upped their inventory ahead of time to keep up with demand.
Even with the up-front investment in additional inventory, Garrow said they're still having a hard time keeping up with orders, and that is reflected in their showroom, where the racks that normally display dozens of bikes are today relatively bare.
As the complications created by the coronavirus pandemic stretch into the remainder of summer, Garrow said it will be interesting to see how supply lines are affected.
"I feel like it will work out though," Garrow said. "There's been some frustration in making things work but we're doing it. We're in a good place."
Another industry where the coronavirus has seemingly been a boon to business is liveries that rent out canoes, tubes and kayaks for use on local rivers.
"There are a lot of people wanting to get out and do stuff," said Roger Zak, owner of Wilderness Canoe Trips, which abuts the Manistee River near Mesick.
"All the festivals have been canceled. There's no doubt about it (that business has been up compared to other years)."
Isabel Thompson, clerk at Chippewa Landing in Manton, said they're seeing almost twice the number of customers they typically would, although that increase is primarily in kayak rentals.
"A lot of people don't want to be a (canoe) with anyone else," Thompson said. "That could be because of social distancing."
The Pianga family, from the Livonia area, traveled to Mesick last week to take a few tubes down the Manistee River.
From their starting point at Wilderness Canoe Trips, patriarch Jason Pianga said they wanted to do something to celebrate a birthday in the family that was "away from people."
While the impulse may be to avoid strangers right now, that isn't to say that camaraderie doesn't exist on the river.
"Something's different this year ... customers are telling us," said Tammy Smith, co-owner with her husband of Smithville Landing, a livery on the Manistee River near Lake City.
"People come up here to unplug and be outside on a beautiful river and have fun," said Smith, who like other livery owners in the area, has noticed an increase in customers this year.
"They're tired of all the negative. I hear people laughing, yelling and waving (at others on the river) along the way. We haven't had a lot of laugh about lately. I think we're going in a positive direction."
Smith said not only do people seem more upbeat this year but they've also been understanding of the social distancing protocols the livery has implemented.
"It's taking a little bit longer to get them on the river," Smith said. "Everyone has to wear a mask when we transport them to the river; we only take one group out at a time; and we disinfect (the canoes, kayaks and tubes) after every use. Customers have been very patient ... I couldn't ask for anything more as a business owner."