By Tony Barthel
If you’re driving around and seeing RV dealer lots empty it’s not because they’re going out of business. In fact, RV dealers and the industry as a whole are thriving. The problem is a shortage of critical parts at manufacturing plants that makes finishing many RVs impossible or presents long delays.
According to some sources, there are RVs sitting in fields waiting for just a few parts before they’re considered complete and shipped off to the dealers. And for every RV that a dealer may have on order, there may be multiple people willing to put down a deposit on that RV and buy it sight unseen.
Thor, the world’s largest RV manufacturer, stated in its first-quarter fiscal results that it has $8.9 billion in back-ordered RVs worldwide, predominantly due to parts shortages. That’s like Santa promising you a toy for Christmas and you not getting it until Halloween – if you’re lucky. And it’s not substituted by Jack Skellington.
Options that may have been available to customers and dealers in the past may not be available now due to parts shortages.
“We were told there were options for 12-volt refrigerators,” said one RV dealer employee I spoke with, who noted that it used to be possible to choose between a 12-volt refrigerator or the more traditional RV gas-electric refrigerator. “Now that option is take it or leave it,” he said, referring to only being able to get the 12-volt models.
This was in reference to the shortages of the typical gas/electric refrigerator that is so common in RVs. But recently, 12-volt compressor-based refrigerators are becoming increasingly popular as manufacturers scramble for parts. If there aren’t gas/electric refrigerators available, what’s the alternative?
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In a video, Jason Epperson of the RVMiles podcast indicated that some manufacturers that had offered two air conditioners on a unit as an option were foregoing that for the time being while the units were in short supply.
I also had a chance to have an exchange with Karl Miller, Operations Manager for Forest River’s Rockwood/Flagstaff brand, a premium brand of travel trailers and fifth wheels.
Miller indicated, “…anything that is imported from overseas is delayed due to shipping containers not finding space on vessels and we understand some ships have not been reactivated since the COVID shutdown.”
In other words, while the RVs are predominantly made here in the U.S., they all use parts from overseas, and getting those parts to the U.S. is a big factor in the problem.
Miller also indicated that inventory levels were already down due to large demand. A backlog of parts just exacerbated the situation. Among the parts Miller cited were sinks, faucets, ceiling fans, 110-volt breakers and that sort of thing.
But then there are also U.S.-made components that rely on parts made overseas including air conditioners, ovens, toilets, axles and more.
Josh Winters from Haylett RV in Coldwater, MI, spoke from the dealer’s perspective saying, “Unfortunately a large number of suppliers have simply been unable to keep up with the unprecedented surge in demand that began post-quarantine. Our industry has always seen ebbs and flows of demand, but nothing like what we have seen in 2020 so far.
“And how I wish I were referring to things like pillows or sink covers — little stuff you can work around or replace/fulfill at a later date. Unfortunately, there have been a number of ‘all stop’ shortages on items that simply prevent the RV from realistically being used.”
Both Miller and Winters also cited something else in short supply: RV toilets. Toilets are almost as scarce as toilet paper in a supermarket.
“I’m not even joking, sadly,” said Winters. “This is a real thing. This is happening. And now we are about to enter the silliest phase of this whole shortage cycle yet — the Great Toilet Shortage of 2020.”
So how are the manufacturers handling the situation? Some are just producing at levels that can be supported by incoming parts shipments.
According to Karl Miller, “Some are coping with it better than others. Documentation and re-inspection of the units are the important steps to have in place in order to not let the dealers and retail customer suffer from shortage-related issues. Maintaining a manageable shortage yard is also very important, as it takes time to install parts. Overbuilding the number of shortage units you have will cause mass confusion and result in damaged units, dirty units and missing parts.”
In other words, some RV manufacturers have actually set production levels at a reasonable level relative to incoming parts and the ability to complete units.
There is a lot of speculation on social media about RV companies building their products at a frenetic pace to try to keep up with demand, but that’s just not realistic. Well-managed companies are building to maintain long-term relationships with their customers and keeping quality at levels at or above previous standards.
Winters also said he was encouraged by the level of quality of rigs that are showing up and the defect rate of new units compared to at any time in the past.
“If anything, we’re seeing equal or better quality of the rigs rolling in here.”
That was echoed by Perry Bates, owner of Redwood Empire RVs in Ukiah, CA, who said, “We’re very happy with the quality of the units we see coming in. We may not get everything we want from a volume standpoint but we are getting quality units.”
And new product innovations are also making appearances with floor plans that reflect a growing number of Americans’ realities of working on the road.
“There are now RVs with spaces to work, spaces for kids to learn. There are even models where people can set up remote offices,” said Bates.
“The manufacturers are doing all they can to make sure their RVs remain 100% functional. Sometimes that just means the camper just ends up looking a little differently than it would in the brochure (though only if you put it under the microscope, so to speak),” echoed Winters.
That kind of thing is not just affecting the delivery of new RVs but also of repairs on existing models. For example, my own RV has a damaged awning. That awning was damaged in August and the estimated time to get the replacement is somewhere around February or March.
“We have been hit by it even harder in a lot of ways at the dealer level,” said Winters. “Suppliers of items like those toilets have already dedicated basically 100% of their completed parts to the manufacturers who represent their biggest customers. For several months we have literally been unable to restock a myriad of items from our parts shelves. Thankfully, warranty requests are still being fulfilled though not quite as quickly as we or our clients would like at times.”
So when does the industry feel they will get a handle on things?
“It has been a moving issue. As some issues get resolved, others show up,” stated Karl Miller. “With what we are seeing with import, the local labor issue, and the low dealer inventories (demand), I believe we will see product shortages and the constant need to monitor it through the first two quarters of 2021. As we see a better product flow, the industry will just try to do more… The brands that plan the best and are responsible for production will shine in the dealers’ and retailers’ eyes. We need to remember it is not how many we build but how well we build what we do build.”