The RV industry is not the only industry that mummifies its messaging inside layers of dense, banal jargon. That practice has become commonplace. Orwellian double-speak numbs the pain of shareholders while obscuring the fear of consumers. So don’t think that I’m picking on THOR Industries Inc. or RV News. They just happen to be the latest two scapegoats to cross my inbox.
On December 6, 2023, RV News published a press release summary about THOR Industries, the conglomerate that owns Thor Motor Coach, Jayco, Tiffin, Keystone, Airstream, and a dozen other major RV manufacturers. (Oh, and it also owns many of the companies that make the OEM parts that the manufacturers purchase, like Airxcel, Dicor, Suburban, Coleman-Mach, etc.) The article announced that THOR Industries remained profitable in the fiscal year 2024 first quarter despite a slump in sales (whew!).
I don’t read much of RV News, since it’s mostly a family tree of who’s-buying-who, and the editorials are you-can-do-it! columns that escaped from the Self-Help section. It’s not a bad magazine, but it’s mostly to keep us industry insiders appraised of commercial developments.
Here’s how the summary begins:
Thor President and CEO Bob Martin said, “As anticipated, independent dealer destocking efforts in North America and seasonally lower first-quarter production within our European segment impacted our unit shipment volumes during the quarter. Despite this, our fiscal 2024 first quarter financial performance demonstrates the collective efforts of our operating companies to prioritize profitability in a soft demand environment.”
That sentence dances better than Fred Astaire, doesn’t it? Later in the article comes my personal favorite, an obfuscating gem from Todd Woelfer, Thor’s senior vice president and chief operating officer.
“At the same time,” Woelfer said, “our teams continued to employ targeted promotional strategies in order to drive retail sales while also introducing our value-enhancing model year 2024 product offerings.”
You have to admire the work it took to replace every living, breathing word in that sentence with its dead, molding counterpart. THOR is hoping that a bigger marketing budget and low-money-down financing will stem the tide of slowing sales, but if they wrote that, then anyone could understand it!
The rest of the article is a similar masterclass. Allow me to translate some of the bureaucratese:
- Destocking efforts = sales to RV buyers
- Prioritize profitability = layoffs, refused POs
- Soft demand = customers ain’t buyin’
- Targeted promotional strategies = advertising and financing campaigns
- Value-enhancing model year 2024 product offerings = new stuff, because new sounds better than old
- Rightsizing prior model year inventory levels = selling whatever you can because your floorplan financing is maxed out and interest rates have skyrocketed
- Mixed economic data = the current U.S. economy where the growing S&P 500 index doesn’t jive with the hemorrhaging savings accounts of the American middle-class
Now, I admit that I’m a closet muckraker, and I don’t pretend to be objective on this blog. But this sort of language is exactly why the average RV owner is, I think, rather perturbed with the state of things.
Yes, rising interest rates have significantly slowed RV sales. But it is just as true that the RV industry, especially the big players, rushed to meet seasonal COVID demand, knowing that when sales dried up (and they would), they could close up shop and wait out the storm. Their Indiana Amish workforce isn’t going anywhere, after all.
This feast-and-famine strategy is easier to execute when you’re a vertically integrated, controlling corporation in an oligopoly. It’s not so easy when you’re a smaller front-facing company, which is why the bankruptcies have begun (RIP Hallmark, Regency, Colorado Teardrops).
The RV industry keeps parroting James Carville: It’s the economy, stupid! It’s not us – it’s COVID-19 supply chain problems. It’s not us – it’s the U.S. prime rate. It’s not us – it’s your dealership. It’s not us – it’s your lack of maintenance (heard that one before?).
As I watch the industry become more and more consolidated, from the OEMs to the manufacturers to the dealerships, I can’t help but wonder what it will take to turn the tide? Are we toying with duopoly; are we on the verge of losing capitalist competition? There’s not a word in that press release about you, the actual RV owner. Sometimes, what’s not said speaks the loudest.