Sweet Smell of Success
Furniture Today Staff -- Casual Living, July 14, 2012
Grill dealers across the country are as diverse as the products they sell, but they all agree on one thing. The easiest way to sell a grill - and separate themselves from the price-driven mass retailers - is to use one.
Mike West of BBQ Islands in Tempe, Ariz., said his store hosts at least one grilling event a month. He said the explosion of grill-oriented programming on outlets such as the Food Network has broadened the interest in grilling. He can tell by the audience at his events.
"It's amazing how we're getting more and more women for grilling events after they've been male dominated for so long," said West. "But they've seen it on TV and want to learn about it. The exposure is huge now."
Diana Limnios of Outdoor Living Made Easy in Northport, N.Y., uses a grilling event to kick off her spring season. She advertises locally and emails her customer base to get the word out and holds a big cookout in the store parking lot.
"The first one is really crucial to attract people who don't know about us," said Limnios. "Sometimes people shy away from small stores because they think we're too expensive and go to the big box stores instead. But when they see what we can do for them, we're able to sell them grills, furniture and the rest of the outdoor experience. That's what it's all about."
Merely having the grills cooking, with the aroma filling the air in and around the store, is an environment big box retailers can't match.
"They can never sell on this kind of experience," said Ted Scott, national sales manager for Napoleon. "They'll have 50 barbecues chained together, but you don't go buy a car unless you test drive it first."
For dealers contemplating a grill-oriented event for the first time, there are considerations. Jerry Erschen, founder and president of Sunrise Sprinklers in Goshen, Ind., hosts a grilling event just once a year because of all the health and environmental codes he must follow.
"Every county and state will be different, but here they have a pre-printed list we go through and have to adhere to," said Erschen. "There are no gimmes. If you don't meet all the conditions, whether it's the right thermometer for meat or wash basins available for the different stations, you won't be able to do it."
Erschen said he also has to pay a permit fee when inspectors come out to examine his store.
Dealers also have to put up with people who come just for the free food.
"If we send it out to social media and it's free food, we'll get a ton of people in here," said West. "Sometimes we'll see the same people in here and know they're here to eat, but they're telling 10 of their buddies or they're bringing other people in. You have to look at the big picture."
West's store also sells sauces, rubs, accessories and other more affordable impulse-type purchases.
"It's rare that people come in and buy nothing," he said.
Scottsaid Napoleon has found a way around both issues when it co-hosts grilling events with its dealers. Cook, but don't serve anything to customers.
"We don't cook to feed, we cook to sell," he said. "A lot of our dealers will run a rotisserie chicken on the weekends, and it smells great and looks fantastic. That's the way you sell. You're creating the smell and the excitement."
A rotisserie chicken, explained Scott, can be slow cooked and left alone for 45 minutes.
"If you have to spend a lot of time grilling, then you're not spending time with the customer," he said.
A successful grilling event doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. Doug Sanicola, president of Outdoor Elegance Inc. in La Verne, Calif., is constantly using his grills to entice customers, and he oft en keeps things simple.
"Just throw some hot dogs or hamburgers on the grill and cook with some type of mesquite or flavor," he said. "I've sold more grills by cooking hot dogs just because people don't realize how the flavor of lump charcoal affects the meat."
Many dealers, including Sanicola, invite local chefs and grilling experts to participate in their events. But again, that doesn't have to be a complicated affair. BBQ Islands is a large specialty store that flies in grilling celebrities such as Chris Marks, whose Three Little Pigs BBQ Team has won more than 40 barbecue contests and the American Royal BBQ Contest Grand Championship eight times.
To help defray some of the costs, West said the store charges customers anywhere from $40 to several hundred dollars to attend the events and classes. So far, he said he hasn't had any trouble drawing good crowds.
Erschen, on the other hand, invites local chefs on a quid pro quo basis.
"I try to work it so it's a reciprocal thing," he said. "They get a little publicity off it and we get to use them for the event. We had three restaurants participate this year, and it helped a little bit with recognition. A few people came in and knew the chefs by first name, which surprised me."
A few dealers even have their own expert on staff. BBQ Island has a salesperson on staff who is also a pitmaster. West said he was a customer when he was hired, and has since competed in several competitions to build his reputation.
Limnios also has her own battle-tested barbecuer.
"He came in two years ago, when we still had mounds of snow outside and decided to put out a Louisiana Grill anyway," she said. "He was driving by and hit the brakes when he saw it because he couldn't find it anywhere. We sold it to him and he volunteered to do demos for us."
That story is testament to the power of grilling. All dealers have to do is fire up a grill and appeal to their senses, and consumers will show up at their door.
Outdoor Living Made Easy is located on a main thoroughfare in Northport, N.Y., where passersby can easily spot the smoke and activity at the barbecue events the store hosts in its parking lot.
The main fl oor of Outdoor Elegance in California is a hive of grilling activity on the weekends, when the store hosts cooking classes and other events. It sold about $200,000 worth of grilling equipment after a recent demonstration.
Competitive griller Cameron Treu was a customer when BBQ Island in Tempe, Ariz., hired him to be its pitmaster. Treu does sales, cooking classes and in-store grilling events.
Tom Gellert, a competition BBQ team chef, was so surprised to see a Louisiana Grill displayed in front of Outdoor Living Made Easy that he stopped to buy the grill and volunteered to do the cooking for the store’s grilling events.
In addition to selling on the fl oor and hosting classes, BBQ Island Pitmaster Treu travels to competitions across the country to stay sharp on the grill.