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Motor sports shops see mixed effects from economic downturn

A convoy of snowmobiles moves through the snowy landscape at Sibley State Park in rural New London in this January 2006 file photo. Sports shops with a diverse product line -- and a service department -- seem to be weathering the economic storm as people scale back on purchases of "toys." (Tribune file photo by Rand Middleton)

WILLMAR -- As consumers scale back on the costs of many luxuries, local motor sports shops are experiencing diverse business effects from recent economic conditions.

While many families are avoiding purchases of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles, some dealers say, other families are funding their motor hobbies but in smaller dollar amounts.

"It seems like people still have money to spend on 'toys,'" said Doug Studanski, owner of Motor Sports of Willmar. "I think with the difficult times out there, people need a break from it all and get away."

Motor Sports of Willmar sells boats, personal watercraft, ATVs, snowmobiles, motorcycles, scooters, and even trailers for those vehicles. Studanski credited his store's stability during the recent economic downturn to product and brand diversity.

Although the industry has generally decreased in sales, Studanski said, many of his customers downgraded to smaller purchases instead of cutting spending altogether. Summer fuel prices played a large part in that behavior, Studanski said, as many customers downgraded from gas-guzzling boats to buying fuel-efficient personal watercraft before the end of the summer.

In spite of recent winters that lacked heavy snowfall, Studanski said his customers also showed more interest in snowmobiles during the last few months.

"People seem to like their 'toys' and sometimes wants are more important than needs," Studanski said. "With all the media talking about the slow economy, and I don't question that it is a bit slow, but we have just not seen the effects of it here."

However, other area motor sports stores aren't reporting the same fortunes.

"The sales are definitely down," said Goff Ogaard, co-owner of Ripley Sports Center in Litchfield.

Ogaard agreed that gas prices changed the industry this past summer. Similar to Motor Sports of Willmar, Ogaard said customers downgraded their purchases, citing that his motorcycle sales decreased about 50 percent this year but his scooter sales increased 150 percent. "Apparently $4 gas sells scooters," Ogaard said.

He also said his service department picked up more business this year. "Everybody's fixing what they have," Ogaard said, citing the numerous 20- to 30-year-old motorcycles his shop worked on in the summer.

But retail sales declined compared to the store's opening three years ago, Ogaard said. Ripley Sports Center even tried holding a 'moving out sale' to boost business before relocating this fall, Ogaard said, but people "just weren't spending the money."

Nathan Neilson, a co-owner of Spicer Sports & Marine, said retail sales declined this year, but his service department was busy. While his shop sells boats, snowmobiles and ATVs, Neilson said it was obvious that marine sales went down this year.

"I think it's fairly well-acknowledged that nationwide (marine) sales were down anywhere from 25 to 40 percent depending on the area of the country," Neilson said.

Motor sports stores also struggle this year, Neilson said, because customers can't get assistance from credit companies.

"Consumers are definitely having trouble getting financing if they want to try for it," Neilson said. " ... And the number of people who want to come in and purchase is clearly down."

Despite the string of slow business, Neilson is optimistic the industry will bounce back, starting in 2009 and 2010.

"Now that the election has been settled, we at least know who the next president is going to be. I think that helps to relieve some anxiety in people's minds," Neilson said.

"The American public, particularly people in this part of the country, we're survivors. And I think 2009 will be fairly tough, but I think 2010 we'll be rolling again."