After six years of rapid growth, the kayak industry is slowing down. As a result, manufacturers will have to innovate to stay afloat.
``Kayaking is like the fruit of the month as far as consumer interest,'' said Chris Mitchell, executive director of the Trade Association of Paddlesports, representing manufacturers, retailers, outfitters, and publications in the industry.
The market had skyrocketed from 1998-2002 due to its appeal as a low-impact outdoor recreational activity. However, statistics for 2003 indicate that the number of participants has leveled off. According to the Outdoor Industrial Association, 9.9 million Americans 16 years of age or older lowered themselves into a kayak at least once last year, slightly less than the 10.2 million of 2002.
The kayaking boom in the late '90s coincided with a consolidation among manufacturers. Easley, S.C.-based WaterMark; Trinity, N.C-based Confluence Watersports; and Racine, Wis.-based Johnson Outdoors Inc. are the major players in the kayak market. Each has acquired various kayak, canoe and accessory makers to become a one-stop shop for water recreation enthusiasts.
Kayaks range from 6 to nearly 20 feet and cost from $225-$3,000.
With a price difference that dramatic, you would be correct to imagine large differences. Rotomolded kayaks are renowned for their bomb-proof durability, but other materials have been used to make lighter, faster kayaks. Composite construction strives to attain the perfect balance that will create a feather-light kayak without sacrificing durability. Some companies are also thermoforming kayaks; those models typically are more expensive than their rotomolded counterparts.
With recent statistics showing that the number of kayakers has stabilized, some industry members believe that more kayaks are being produced than the market can handle.
``We're not selling enough to keep manufacturers overworked,'' Mitchell said. ``We're making too many in a rush to pander to big box, big chain commodity consumers.''
``In any market that's booming, everybody jumps on the bandwagon,'' said Kelley Woolsey, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Confluence Watersports. ``As they say, the strong survive.''
Manufacturers are dealing with the changing market in different ways. For example, Confluence has plans to focus resources into niche markets, Woolsey said.
``Two areas that are really growing are fishing kayaks and the women's market.'' He said the technology to make lighter kayaks is bringing more women to a sport in which almost 60 percent of the participants are male. Confluence is shaving 20-30 percent off the weight of its kayaks thanks to new materials from Fairlawn, Ohio-based A. Schulman Inc., its supplier. Walden Kayaks, Old Town and other companies have been using structural foam between layers of PE to cut weight from their kayaks without losing durability.
The weight of a kayak is an important consideration for consumers and manufacturers.
``A lot of new kayakers, they're in their 50s and they don't want to be lifting heavy kayaks onto and off of their cars,'' said Bryon Phillips, spokesman for kayak rotomolder Liquidlogic LLC in Flat Rock, N.C. Usually the material used determines how heavy the kayak will be.
``We switched to a higher-level plastic and lightened 3 pounds,'' said Jeffrey DeSantis, president of Walden Kayaks, a family-run company based in Ayer, Maine. Walden's switch to high density PE will keep its prices stable, but many manufacturers are thermoforming composite kayaks that are reinforced with Kevlar or carbon fiber.
Fiberglass kayaks are lightweight, but can cost thousands of dollars instead of hundreds. Perception's Shadow 16.0 is made in both PE and composite models. The Kevlar-reinforced kayak is 46 pounds and its suggested price is $3,000; the PE model is 59 pounds and $1,450.
This summer, the U.S. Olympic kayak team will be using carbon fiber and fiberglass kayaks in competition.
``Plastic is much too heavy,'' said Luke Dieker, spokesman for U.S.A. Canoe and Kayak, the Charlotte, N.C.-based organization that recruits, trains and supports athletes for the Olympic Games. Price is not a factor for these kayakers. ``When you want to compete at the elite level, you want the very best,'' he said.
The huge difference in material costs is a convincing reason for the continued use of PE for some companies. Confluence has no immediate plans to thermoform for any of its brands.
Being able to still use PE is critical,'' Woolsey said. ``Materials that are affordable can keep the market going.'' There are three key characteristics for a top-selling kayak, Woolsey said: ``affordable, durable and transportable.''
DeSantis does not believe that producing high-end, high-cost kayaks will bring in new consumers. Walden's line of kayaks ranges from $349-$849.
``If you want to keep people coming into the sport you don't keep raising the price,'' he said. ``If you're trying to get new people into the sport and the only thing they can buy is $800 and up, you're going to see the sport die.''
But the continued production of entry-level kayaks might be too much now that the market has shown signs of maturing.
``There's not a lot of innovation, just overproducing. From our position that's a suicidal strategy for long-term growth,'' said Mitchell, executive director of TAPS. ``As everybody looks to make more and more low-end products you have a gray market with overproduction. From an accountant's standpoint, we'll get more people that can afford $300 than $3,000. If you're selling potato chips, that works.''
But unlike a bag of chips, kayaks are durable goods - consumers don't need to buy a new one every summer. Rotomolded kayaks made 12 years ago look as sharp and perform as well as the first day they hit the water. Without new consumers to count on, kayak makers will be competing for the attention of kayak enthusiasts looking to upgrade. Innovation will be the key to success in the newly crowded kayak market, Mitchell said.
``Most rotomolders aren't offering significant innovations, just the same product year after year. Without significant innovations, there's no reason to buy new. Thermoforming is the cutting edge and it's chipping into the PE market,'' he said. ``In the future, look into a wider gap between [rotomolding] PE and thermoforming.''
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Touring/sea: 12-18 feet long, narrow design allows them to cut through waves and cover large distances in a short time, for weekend trips, usually have waterproof storage.
Recreational: 9-12 feet long, wide enough to allow for activities like fishing, snorkeling and bird-watching.
Sit-on-tops: for new paddlers and paddlers with long legs, large body size or limited flexibility, generally the least expensive.
Whitewater: 6-10 feet long, curved hull, or "rocker," for more maneuverability down twisty, untamed rivers.