Winnebago rebound signals strengthening consumer

Winnebago's big turnaround

Winnebago is riding the road to recovery, as more Americans are starting to feel comfortable enough with their finances to make big-ticket purchases.

Despite posting mixed fiscal third-quarter results on Thursday that topped earnings estimates but fell short on revenue expectations, analysts said investors should focus on the U.S. mobile home manufacturer's year-over-year growth.

Earnings for the three months ended in May increased more than 55 percent from the same period last year. And quarterly revenue, up more than 13 percent, was the highest since 2005—well before the recession.

"I think it's another solid, really impressive quarter for the company," said David Whiston, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar. "I think it just shows the recovery in motor homes is well underway after bottoming during the crisis a few years back."

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Winnebago is best known for its decked-out mini homes on wheels, which range in price from $60,000 to more than $400,000 and come equipped with everything from washing machines to flat-screen TVs to electric fireplaces.

Although it's a small-cap stock—with a market capitalization of roughly $650 million—experts watch its performance because recreational vehicles, particularly motor homes, are closely correlated with consumer confidence.

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The company was hit hard in the downturn as consumers pulled back on such hefty discretionary purchases, causing motor home shipments to plummet. According to Griffin Securities, overall U.S. shipments from Winnebago and its industry competitors dropped to 10,000 units for all of 2009—down from their peak of 70,000 in 2005.

But shipments have begun to rebound. They climbed to 38,000 in 2013 and, despite the harsh winter, are expected to hit 45,000 this year.

Still, Winnebago said more consumers are opting for newer, less expensive vehicles. The company's Class B and Class C models posted strong demand in the quarter, putting pressure on the average purchase price even as sales surge.

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"At our Dealer Days event this April, we introduced several new products and floor plans that were well received by our dealer partners," said Winnebago Chairman and CEO Randy Potts, in the earnings release.

Griffin Securities analyst Morris Ajzenman said baby boomers account for the lion's share of motor home sales, with consumers ages 55 and older accounting for as much as 60 percent of the market.

But RV retailers note a growing number of families are also making purchases—especially as the company rolls out more affordable models equipped with bunk beds and other family friendly amenities.

"Activity is better than it's ever been ... and I've been selling Winnebago for 28 years," said Frank Davis, manager at a Lakewood, New Jersey-based Camping World store that sells motor homes. "They're opening new plants to accommodate the sales that are coming."

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A recent reading on consumer confidence, which put it at levels not seen since 2008, bodes well for the industry. And Winnebago's management predicts "continued moderate growth."

Because motor homes are also closely tied to the housing market, Davis said loans on motor homes enjoy similar tax deductions to traditional residences—meaning low interest rates have been driving purchases.

Still, there are some headwinds.

Unlike traditional auto companies, Winnebago doesn't itself finance loans; but analysts note that the eventual raising of rates could pressure sales in much the same way as new and existing home sales.

Another potential challenge: rising gas prices. Thanks to the uncertainty in Iraq, gasoline has followed crude oil prices higher. Last week AAA reported the highest national average for an early summer gallon of gas in six years. And motor homes aren't exactly fuel efficient, with many higher-end models claiming about 10 miles per gallon.

Still, analysts remain upbeat on Winnebago's latest results.

"If you feel good about your house, you feel good about your stock portfolio, you feel good about the state of your pension, your 401(k) or your job ... you're more inclined to go and buy one of these vehicles," said Morningstar's Whiston. "I'm looking for continued healthy demand for Winnebago for the next few quarters."

By CNBC's Morgan Brennan.