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Specialty Retailers Count On High-End Grills That Add Value

It's no surprise to specialty retailers that home improvement retailers and mass merchants have discovered the grill category.

Walk into nearly any big box store and you'll likely be blinded by the glare of stainless steel units glinting under fluorescent lights. How long those grills will last remains open for debate, but specialty grill retailers believe their products are superior and will provide more grilling enjoyment over a longer period of time.

In the end, the difference is value for the money, they say.

"I don't carry Weber or anything with 'char' in its name," said Sam Muscariello, owner of Firenze Patio, Fireside & Outdoor Living, San Clemente, Calif. "My business plan all along was to make sure quality comes first."

Muscariello said he spent six months researching more than 80 grill brands, using such criteria as field support, quality, warranty and use of technology, before choosing four brands: PGS, FireMagic, Solaire and Kalamazoo. Grills in the store start at $1,200, higher than the top-end grill at most big boxes.

But quality products are just the beginning. Muscariello backs that up with a competent sales staff who can explain the value of each product, help find the right grill head for an island and can discuss proper spacing. Each grill has been assembled correctly, burn checked and air adjusted. Setup and delivery are free, and Muscariello personally performs rough-in checks on built-in projects to make sure grill head dimensions are correct.

"My peace of mind is huge," Muscariello said. "I don't want to do something twice or have to refund a customer's money."

So the differentiator is service — not lip service, but real customer service. Products you can't get at mass merchants certainly help. Grillman Propane, Home, Hearth & Patio delivers grills in a 25-mile radius of its Easton, Mass., store. Delivery includes recycling the customer's old grill, a full tank of propane and a hands-on demonstration of the grill — all for free, said Amber Tufts, office manager and company co-owner with husband Jeff. "Most grill sales are repeat business or word of mouth," Tufts said of the 20-year-old business. "Our margins are staying the same, but the numbers are dropping."

But the company is doing more business on the service side, traveling to repair built-in grills and service pool heaters. "It's almost like prepping the next sale," Tufts said of the service stickers the technician affixes near the model and serial number information so customers will know where to call next time.

Another differentiator is offering services competitors don't and exceeding customer expectations. Even in the middle of a Toronto winter, grills get fired up on Saturday at Sobie's Barbecues, President Joel Waisglass said. If a customer shows interest in a grill, employees will invite the customer to return with the makings of their favorite meal, roll that grill outside, fire it up and let the customer have at it. "Before you dish out a couple grand or more for a grill, you need to let your palate decide," Waisglass said. "Have you ever bought a car without test-driving it?"

Sobie's owner stresses the longevity and product knowledge of his staff, who can explain the value his higher-end grills represent.

The differentiation also involves going the extra mile to demonstrate to customers the value of your products. Michigan Fireplace & Barbecue has been in the same Troy, Mich., location for 29 years, President John Yoo said. The economy of the area is heavily reliant on the health of domestic automakers, and the region has not recovered fully from the latest downturn. That means shoppers are more reluctant these days to part with serious cash for a quality grill, Yoo said.

"You have to spend a lot of time with (customers), give a good sales presentation, explain the differences among grills and be more knowledgeable than your competitors," Yoo said. "The majority of people will understand the difference, but some just can't afford it and walk away."

Yoo said he's seen competitors and other specialty stores close around him. Yoo has relied even more on repeat business and referrals, the ultimate testament to a quality dealer. And for a specialty grill retailer, that can make all the difference.

   Some retailers try to steer clear of lower price point grills and focus on quality and the bells and whistles that will differentiate them from big box retailers.

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