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Specialty retailers can clear consumer confusion about grill buying

Not many years ago most gas grills were black, powder-coated cast aluminum with simple carts that did not even hide the propane tank; more than 85% of them sold for under $300. Grill buying guidelines usually suggested consumers would do well to buy one with two burners because this would add cooking flexibility by allowing indirect cooking.

Compare that to the choices today's grill buyers face, starting with 50 or more brands in the mid- to high-end categories. Grills at a $199 price point commonly have three and four burners, and often include a side burner. Four to six burners are standard on the super-premium grills priced from $3,000 and up. And now it's the rule rather than the exception that gas grills, certainly those carried by specialty retailers, have cabinets. Also at these higher price points, homeowners are choosing from a wide variety of additional modules to accompany the grill — a wet bar, refrigerator, ice maker, additional storage and warming drawers to name a few. The once-prominent battle of the BTUs has been replaced by the race to see who can produce the most grill enhancements.

Stainless steel is now found at every price point from a few hundred dollars to $5,000 or $10,000. However, it doesn't take long to figure out not all stainless steel is created equal and there is a significant difference in the quality of the two ends of the spectrum. While expensive behemoths with countless bells and whistles are intended to last a lifetime, the most affordably priced, lighter gauge stainless steel grills may end up needing to be replaced in three to five years. The jury is still out as to whether stainless will continue to dominate or if it has reached its peak. But it is encouraging to find a few manufacturers opting for some combination of stainless and colored porcelain enamel to test consumer reaction.

The category growing the fastest and garnering the most attention is the mid-price point that was long ignored. There is no industry consensus on what is a mid-level price point. Opinions range from $500–$1,000 to $800–$1,800, but probably the most accepted definition would be in the $700–$800 to $1,500–$1,600 range. It's more likely that someone considering a $500 grill could be talked into one at $800 than jumping to $5,000.

Today's mid-priced grills offer many of the features of far more expensive grills. Ducane, Broilmaster, Modern Home Products and Weber are brands that traditionally fell into this step-up category. But newer brands like Sterling Forge or R.H. Peterson's American Outdoor Grills also compete in this arena.

A number of manufacturers have acquired a second recognized brand name in order to broaden the range of customers they can serve. Weber added the well-regarded Ducane name and now assures retailers and consumers of quality grills ranging from $349 to $1,999. Sureheat supplemented its Altima brand with Amana. MHP acquired ProFire as a second brand. Others have followed a similar pattern.

Although today's savvy shoppers have access to resources such as manufacturers' Web sites to help them bone up prior to visiting a retailer, how can they be expected to wend their way through the myriad options offered to them? In addition to brand, price and material choices, should they devote one of multiple burners to infrared, currently the hottest trend in the industry? Will they actually use a convection oven? Or even a side burner or rear rotisserie? Will digital controls really make their grilling or smoking foolproof? Are the many high-tech features available worth the extra money and will they stand the test of time or break down, requiring more frequent service calls as some manufacturers fear? Helping consumers sort through the many options to select the grill that is right for their individual needs is where specialty retailers should shine.

The sharpest distributors and dealers know it's difficult to sell grills effectively without talking about cooking. Be sure that you and your sales people have actually cooked on the brands you carry, can talk intelligently and answer questions. Be aware you're selling lifestyle, not just a product. Instead of reeling off a laundry list of features, put them in the context of benefits to the backyard barbecue chef. Don't tell your customer they need an infrared burner because it is the newest trend, but rather explain that it will provide steakhouse-type searing, cook the perfect rare steak and grill vegetables quickly. Explain that digital controls will prevent overcooking by ensuring the heat will not exceed the set temperature, so the cook need not be tied to the grill.

Help customers figure out what features are important enough to them to be a good value. Big box stores cannot do that.

The Sterling Forge line runs from $600 to $1,800 and offers many features in this mid-level price point that would usually be found on much more expensive stainless steel grills.

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