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Still Smokin'

Grill manufacturers adapt to keep business hot in downturn

With the U.S. economy in the grip of a recession, the grill market still has some heat. In fact, it may get even hotter thanks to steps companies are taking now to keep their businesses solid.

For now, however, sales are generally even with last year, and a few manufacturers say their business is even slightly ahead of where it was at this time in 2008. 

Growth is coming from several areas, including accessories. Lynx is enjoying modest gains this year thanks in part to its efforts to develop new grill accoutrements, according to Brian Eskew, marketing director.

“We’re in the outdoor kitchen business, which is important to us because with built-in grills come a lot of grill accessories,” Eskew said. “We have seen consumers opt for more accessories in part because we've made them available.”

Lynx now sells refrigerators, ice machines and warming drawers for outdoor kitchens. Recently, it added outdoor patio heaters and outdoor ventilation pieces.

The replacement parts business is up for Modern Home Products, which sells parts to dealers for resale or to do their own repairs for customers, MHP marketing head Don Gaylord said. 

The high-end part of the market is also showing growth. Companies such as Lynx and The Big Green Egg are having success positioning their products as wise investments. 

“There's the whole 'staycation' theory,” said Jodi Burson, marketing resources manager for The Big Green Egg. “And people who tried to sell their home and couldn't are reinvesting a little. If they're going to be there for a while, they want a comfortable and fun environment. They'll spend more time on their deck at home.”
The fact that BGE did well after 9/11 for those same reasons gives Burson hope for 2009.

Weber One-Touch Charcoal Grill
Now available in a larger version, Weber’s One-Touch Charcoal Grill fits family needs.

Michael J. Kempster, executive vice president at Weber-Stephen Products Co., has even more empirical evidence to lean on. A Weber veteran of nearly 40 years, Kempster has been through his share of economic downturns. 

“I've seen that overall the industry can take a hit because people may trade down from the most expensive grill to a less expensive model, but unit sales hold up well,” he said. Then again, Kempster said, this recession is the worst he's ever been through.

Preparing for the Storm

Almost every grill manufacturer seems to be doing something to resist the economic armageddon cable and network news anchors appear to promise every single day. 

Cal Spas, for instance, has tweaked its product line to maximize a trend in its sales data. The change came in response to seeing sales skewing toward lower price points last year, Cal Spas President Casey Loyd said
“When we learned this, we went to work on several new lines of products that could address this shift,” he said. “The Escape series of spas, the G series of grills and, our latest introduction, the Genesis series of spas, all are examples of products built with today's consumer in mind.”

Weber sales showed similar trends, Kempster said. “What we started to see last spring was consumers pulling back in the upper middle part of our line and going to our opening gas grills,” he said. “The very top of the line held up well, but that was before we saw up-market retailers decline.”

Kempster said early 2009 orders for Weber's high-end grills have been slightly above budget, but he is wary. Even luxury consumers have been hit by the economy, seeing their 401K and stock portfolios go into a free fall.
Weber, therefore, is streamlining its inventory and managing production schedules to save on overtime pay. It is also working with suppliers to save on commodity expenses. 

“If something is nice to have instead of a need to have, we're not doing it,” Kemster said. 

Modern Home Products has taken the drastic step of pulling out of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo this month. This is the first year it won't exhibit since it joined the HPBA in the 1980s. 

“You have to make changes and cut back,” Gaylord said. “We went much smaller in Atlanta last year, too. You have space costs, you have travel and you have entertainment. It really adds up.”

A Warm Forecast?

Another preventative measure grill manufacturers are taking is working more closely with their retailers. Several vendors are planning aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns to keep consumers aware of grills and where they can get them.

“We haven't cut back on any advertising,” Kempster said. “We will be running a strong national advertising campaign featuring national print advertising in a great selection of magazines that appeal to men and women.”
Others are communicating more frequently with retailers. The Big Green Egg, for instance, sends out a regular newsletter full of merchandising and event ideas. The company is also using its customer service department to exchange ideas with dealers. 

“I think we'll come out of the recession stronger because our communications have helped us do things like create ad slicks to drive people into stores for Valentine's Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and other non-traditional grilling occasions,” Burson said.

Manufacturers aren't just looking internally to remain strong in 2009. More than a few companies are also finding growth opportunities beyond its traditional retail channels. 

Weber, for instance, has discovered a pent up demand in big cities. It is increasing advertising and marketing in urban centers where space and laws require more compact grills. 

Gaylord said Modern Home Products has found opportunities in the pool and spa market, which hasn't been a factor since mass retailers pushed those pool and spa retailers out of the grill business in the mid 1980s. 

“The last thing I would ever advise a business to do is duck and cover and hide out for a year,” Eskew said. “It's in tough times like this when brands want to be somewhat aggressive. You don't want to be overly optimistic, but you don't want to be so pessimistic that you don't do anything to continue growing.”

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