Fire up the grill

May 1, 2004 By    

Lots of homeowners say they plan to buy new gas barbecue grills in the next two years after 17 consecutive weekends of rain in many parts of the country washed out much of last summer’s barbecuing season and cut heavily into anticipated grill sales.

  Barbecuing is a 
lot of fun. Don't sell grills; 
sell lifestyle!
Barbecuing is a
lot of fun. Don’t sell grills;
sell lifestyle!

While U.S. consumer spending on barbecue grills was down 7 percent last year, it was still nearly a $3 billion market that moved more than 14 million barbecue grills – along with fuels and accessories – according to Carter Keithley, president and CEO of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. New consumer research by HPBA indicates that there is strong pent-up demand for grills, however, so he’s predicting shipments will rebound.

Moreover, the idea of the backyard or patio as the “outdoor room” has taken hold of the popular imagination. It is now a $66 billion per year business with spas, patio furniture and other outdoor products turning decks, patios and poolside into luxurious new outdoor family rooms (See related story, page 24).

Although 2003 grill sales were down from 2002, the HPBA says its survey shows that Americans expect to buy 18 million new barbecue grills through 2005. Nearly 10.3 million of those purchases are planned by customers expressing specific intentions to buy gas grills.

If the more than 3,200 specialty retailers – including propane marketers – who sell them get their normal share of the premium end of the grills market, that should be 205,200 barbecue grills sold. About half of those are likely to retail for more than $1,000 apiece, while the rest are generally above $300.

Is a $1.7 million annual grill marketplace big enough to draw increased interest by propane retailers, especially if they can also sell fuel and accessories?

Keithley says high-end portable barbecues are hot in the marketplace, as are more affordable ($400 to $600) stainless steel models from offshore manufacturers. “There is no shortage of super high-end, six- or eight-burner solid stainless appliances offering ever conceivable bell and whistle.”

Infrared cooking is moving out of professional kitchens and into searing and rotisserie applications on home barbecue units. Infrared models on the market this year include top-down heat, one burner of the grill (or separate searing stations) or full infrared burner systems. Top-down units cause no flare ups, since there is no flame under the food for fat to drip onto.

HPBA’s 2003 consumer study found the average U.S. home now has 1.6 outdoor grills – up from 1.4 in previous studies. Sixty three percent of those were gas grills. Year-round outdoor cooking was reported by 62 percent. The typical grill owner cooks outdoors 22 times during the warm weather season.

Among the 25 percent of respondents who expect to buy a new grill soon, propane remains the fuel of choice. Two-thirds will replace existing grills, and only 25 percent expect to buy charcoal units.

Ninety eight percent of gas grill owners use propane cylinders. Seventy four percent of their grills came equipped with the cylinder. Sixty eight percent of gas grill owners have their cylinders refilled; the balance – a growing percentage – opt for the convenience of one of the more than 30,000 propane cylinder exchange locations nationwide.

For 10 years, gas grills have been the fastest growing category of grills. They are most popular in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Due to improved design and production in recent years, they last longer than ever. The average age of a gas grill is now 4.1 years, HPBA found.

“The grills that used to last two or three years now last five or six years,” says Donna Myers, HPBA’s marketing consultant.

Among gas grill owners, 48 percent own no other type of grill. The survey found 47 percent of gas grill owners own just one propane cylinder, 43 percent own two, and 11 percent have three or more.

Myers told specialty marketers attending the HPBA Expo 2004 in Anaheim, Calif. in March that they and big box discount stores aren’t in the same business, even though both sell grills. Premium marketers offer better products, more product knowledge, and are prepared to back up the products they sell with service.

“Customers don’t come to you because you have the cheapest grills on the block. They want good advice, installation and service,” she said.

She advises marketers to put a priority on communicating to customers that “Barbecuing is a lot of fun. Don’t sell grills; sell lifestyle!”

A booming Chinese economy has sharply increased worldwide demand for steel, driving up the price of stainless steel. That may have a strong impact on popular stainless steel grills and components in the year ahead. “I’m sure we’re going to see fewer lower end stainless steel grills,” she said.

Grilling is done at home 92 percent of the time, survey results indicate, and 11 percent is done at second homes, which are expected to double in number by 2010. Portable units are also in demand, with 7 percent of grilling being reported at parks and 3 percent each at beaches or at tailgating parties. Another 1 percent grill on boats.

Myers advises anyone selling grills to consider adding “real easy add- on” items like deck protectors, cleaning products, griddles and other related items that may have relatively low prices and high markups. She mentions cookbooks, sauces, spices, and supplies to facilitate smoking on grills. Marketing from the big picture end of the scale can also be effective, she says, by promoting the outdoor room concept and making alliances with landscapers, pool builders, and other design, installation and service people likely to be involved in projects that include barbecues and accessories.

Grill islands and built-ins continue double-digit growth in shipments, so there may be considerable opportunity in selling them.

Upgrading a backyard’s amenities often can be included in a mortgage refinancing, and can be an asset in enhancing future market value. Myers says prospective customers should be reminded that the dream barbecue and all the other patio facilities and furniture can be funded by a re-fi. “It’s relatively painless to do it when you can wrap it into a big mortgage,” she observes.

Offbeat specialty grills – conversation pieces modeled after pigs and cows, a toolbox and even classic Harley Davidson motorcycles – are growing in popularity. One manufacturer offers a grill that will cook on either propane or charcoal, and there have been improvements in electric grills. Using an electric grill “was kind of like cooking on your hair dryer until a few years ago,” Myers says. Now they can get to 600 or 700 degrees.

Grill lights to extend the barbecuing season or facilitate outdoor dinner parties also are catching on. Many grill models from many makers include them in the handles, under the hoods, or as clip on accessories.

HPBA’s attitude surveys also have found that many women “are frightened of gas grills and of lighting them.” She suggests marketers do a better job educating women customers about grill safety and proper procedures.

Other suggestions Myers offers marketers to help move barbecues include:

  • Show them what you have. Consumers buy what they can see.
  • Theme displays for holiday and other promotions.
  • Group related products together.
  • Burn a grill at your store at least occasionally and hand out samples of the food you cook on it. “Nothing sells barbecues like tasting the food,” she said.

Ducane – long a stalwart of the grill industry – did not present its products at the HPBA show. The company, which gave a lifetime guarantee on its products and marketed them with the slogan, “Buy your last grill first” has gone bankrupt and was recently purchased by Weber.

Because no final decisions about the Ducane line had been made before the show, dealers who handled that line said they were uncertain about its future. There were early reports that Weber was already downsizing the Ducane product guarantee to a more normal three years.

Exhibitors at Expo 2004 made it clear that even in in the age of global warming, the idea of heating the great outdoors – something that your father may have warned you against years ago when you didn’t close the outside doors of your family home quickly enough – has become thinkable. More than 500,000 outdoor hearth products that reinvent the cozy campfire were sold last year.

Residents looking to make their patios comfortable and convenient throughout the year are choosing outdoor hearth products to “stretch the season in many locations, and making evenings warmer and longer,” Keithley says.

“Some half million chimneas, built-in fireplaces, portable fire pits and umbrella-type gas-fueled patio heaters were shipped in 2003 and we see this growth continuing,” he said.

According to Mary S. Carson of the Vent-Free Gas Products Alliance in Arlington, Va., installation of vent-free gas fireplaces and chimaneas on patios and in roof gardens and outdoor rooms is a significant new trend.

Keithley added that an outdoor ring of fire that includes a functioning water fountain – introduced by Travis Industries last year and becoming available this year in commercial quantities in two models including one new downsized unit – “is an eye – catcher in upscale outdoor rooms.”

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