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New products go to extremes in the highly competitive grill industry

May 1, 2005 By    

Hotter. Cooler. Bigger. Smaller. Fire and water, too. Not to mention ice. In many ways, barbecue grills seem to be moving to extremes for 2005, or combining what may seem — at least at first — to be conflicting elements.

This ain’t your daddy’s grill. Gas grills are constantly becoming bigger, better and more technological.
This ain’t your daddy’s grill. Gas grills are constantly becoming bigger, better and more technological.

But some 15 million grills are expected to be sold in the United States this year. And nearly 19 million barbecuing households — according to an industry survey — intend to buy a new grill within the next two years. Gas grills have been the fastest growing category since 1993, and last year they captured a 60 percent market share.

About 10.8 million consumers plan to buy an LP gas grill by 2007. So there should be plenty of opportunity for propane marketers to sell quality grills to their neighbors in 2005.

More than six million LP gas grills were sold in 2004. Mass marketers sold most for under $300. More than one million of them, however, sold at prices above $300, the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA) reported after a national survey conducted late last year. Nearly 120,000 of those were the kind of premium grills priced at $1,000 to $2,000 that is generally sold by specialty retailers. Despite the smaller numbers, those grills “continue to represent significant dollar volume,” according to HPBA. And gas grills continue to be popular, the fastest growing fuel category.

The latest HPBA survey, in fact, found 63 percent of grill owners now have LP gas grills. According to that trade association, the highest ownership of gas grills nationally is in New England. And those folks must like the grills that they already own, because they are making plans to buy a new gas grill at a higher rate there than in any other region of the country. If that is your region, think special opportunities.

So what does today’s consumer want when he or she shops for a new gas grill? The HPBA survey found the following items mentioned most often (in descending order):

  • Durable ignition systems
  • Easy cleaning
  • Large cooking areas
  • A surface work area
  • Multiple burners
  • A temperature gauge or regulator
  • A grease catcher

If you sell grills, it will certainly make sense to pay attention to these features in particular. Stock the grills that you find compete well in these categories and make sure your customers and potential customers become aware that your products offer advantages in these areas.

 Besides adding technological advances, more and more gas grills are being designed with features most customers ask for, such as multiple burners and grease catchers.
Besides adding technological advances, more and more gas grills are being designed with features most customers ask for, such as multiple burners and grease catchers.

Since you are in the gas business, it may also be of interest to you to know that 62 percent of gas grill owners barbecue year-round. Perhaps that’s one reason grills with built-in lights and optional add-on lights are increasingly popular options — more people are cooking after dark on those long winter nights, too.

Ninety-eight percent of gas grills are operated on portable cylinders, not on a central piped system. Nearly half (47 percent) of the LP gas grill owners have only one 20-lb. cylinder, but 43 percent own two, and 11 percent have three or more. And 68 percent of current gas grill owners have cylinders refilled. But the percentage that patronizes the nation’s 32,000 cylinder exchange locations is rising steadily, the HPBA study found. You may be refilling cylinders at your plant now, but that data could indicate that some day soon you ought to consider setting up cylinder exchanges to cater to customer demands for convenience.

HPBA’s big Expo 2005 in Atlanta in February provided an especially big window into the latest trends in barbecue grill design from more than 70 manufacturers’ perspectives. Although steel prices rose rapidly on international markets last year, only a few makers this year seem to have tried to cut costs by cutting back on the stainless steel look that remains popular with consumers. Only a few introduced alternatives like new cast aluminum grills or seemed to be exploring other materials and finishes.

In a highly competitive business, in another trend that seems to be demand driven, a proliferation of new grills with infrared burners of new designs, infrared burners that can be retrofitted into existing models, and even high-end all-infrared grills was on hand. With some of those claiming to sear at up to 1,500 degrees, grilling for 2005 was looking about as hot as it could get.

“Once people cook on infrared, they don’t want to go back,” says Rett Rasmussen, vice president of Rasmussen Iron Works, maker of Solaire grills. “As infrared gains in popularity, more and more customers desire a no compromise, all infrared grill.” That line added two new infrared grills this year, and all Solaires are designed to be easily convertible from one burner type to the other.

Thermal Engineering Corp. (TEC) was showing its own new line of infrared grills based on the company’s new flare-free design for infrared burners. According to the company, radiant infrared energy cooks food without drying it out if hot air from the burners can be kept away from the food on the grill. So TEC devised a system in which the burner below the food is shielded by a sheet of ceramic glass that does not allow heated air around the burner to rise, but exhausts it. Meanwhile, the glass itself heats up and becomes a very even emitter of radiant energy. This system heats very rapidly and can broil a hamburger patty in six minutes or can be set to cook other items very slowly. The burner is shielded from drips from the cooking meat, so flare-ups cannot occur. Traditional infrared burners use woven screens that TEC declares are unreliable and subject to failure. Instead, TEC designers use flat plates fabricated from a high temperature alloy.

But at the same time, Vidalia was showing a two-section grill that featured indirect cooking over water on one side, another way of addressing the problem of meat drying out on a traditional barbecue grill. And Wellbas, a Chinese manufacturer, was demonstrating its own even more unique water-cooled barbecue system, that actually circulates cooling water within the grill’s cooking grid to produce what it claims is a more moderate temperature more conducive to nutritional cooking.

While water and fire were getting together at the barbecue show, ice was also on hand. Outdoor kitchens with built-in islands and modular products and accessories also were increasingly in evidence, and several makers like Viking and KitchenAid have moved from the modest ice buckets of yesteryear to increasingly sophisticated outdoor refrigerators, drink dispensers, bars and sinks to supplement — and complement — their grill lines.

At the same time, the fondness many people feel for grilling is coming full circle. Another manufacturer, ProFire, is taking the outdoor grill back indoors with its PFIndoor Grill.

For many outdoor grill manufacturers, on the other hand, bigger and hotter seems to be conceived as better again this year. New top-of-the-line grills from some makers — like Weber’s Summit Platinum D6 — are afire with six main burners and enough side burners, rotisserie burners and smoker burners to gladden the heart of anyone selling propane.

At the same time, according to the HPBA, “there is a distinct upward trend in shipments of portable and take-along type grills,” and many smaller units have come on the market. That this category may just be beginning to get a toehold may be indicated by the fact that the HPBA survey found 98 percent of barbecuing still occurs at home, while just under 20 percent of grill owners take one along on a camping trip, 11 percent keep them at second homes, and seven percent take portable grills for cookouts in parks or for tailgating parties at sports events.

The big fuel trend that emerged last year was strengthening customer demand for flavored wood chips and chunks, with shipments up 10 percent. If you are stocking wood chips to add flavorful smoke to gas barbecues, mesquite and hickory are the consumer’s favorites, HPBA found, with apple, oak, cherry, maple alder and pecan preferred in descending order. Tongs, long-handled forks and spatulas are the most commonly used barbecue tools. Smoker grills are most commonly owned in the upper Midwest and Midwest. Fish cookers and turkey fryers are more popular in the South and Southwest, according to the survey.

There is even one charcoal grill that propane marketers could sell that will also move a little propane. The Weber-Stephen Products Co. this year has restyled and revamped its Performer grill to address a trend identified by the company’s own research. During 2004 in the United States, charcoal grill ownership rose from 42 percent the previous year to 47 percent, the company says.

“Much of that increase is attributed to gas grill owners who are adding a second grill — a charcoal grill — to their backyard gear.” The Performer, although it is primarily a charcoal grill, uses a propane burner to rapidly ignite the charcoal — to some, perhaps, the best of BOTH worlds!

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