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Cinde W. Ingram

Specialty grill sales stay hot for some

Grill islands and outdoor kitchens fan the fire

Outdoor kitchens and built-in options are keeping grill sales hot for some specialty retailers, but others report their grill sales remain cool.

"With the trend toward outdoor living areas, as opposed to the patios of the past, the grill industry has begun what appears to be a steady upward swing," said Cheryl Lindsay, who led 2006 sales at ABSCO Fireplace & Patio in Birmingham, Ala. "People are no longer satisfied to just roll a grill onto a concrete slab. Built-in grills and their components for fully equipped outdoor kitchens, from the simple and functional to the luxurious and elaborate, equipped to operate on natural gas, as well as beautifully designed pre-fab islands are much more sought after now than in the past."

Linda Moss, store manager of the Lehrer Fireplace & Patio location in Littleton, Colo., a suburb of Denver, agreed with that view. "We're probably selling more of the natural gas grills than propane, because we have so much competition from the mass," she said. Looking ahead, she expects 2007 sales to be about the same as last year's although she thinks more consumers will want outdoor kitchens.

Cheryle Lund, retail manager and co-owner, Earth Energies Hearth & Patio, Tuscon, Ariz., said its 2006 sales were up, primarily because of its emphasis on custom grill cabinets and on medium- to high-end grills. "Primarily, I don't do cart models — I leave that to the box stores; they've done a fairly decent job in the price points. I just don't compete in that market at all so everything we do is with built-ins," Lund said. "Of course, we're here in sunny Arizona so we have a lot of outdoor activities." One employee is dedicated to making grill cabinets in a separate shop from the company's retail showroom and wholesale division, which also acts as a fireplace distributor for new construction.

The home improvement channel also is continuing to move upward. For example, Lowe's has enhanced its grill line across the board with additional features like side burners, improved assembly time, added night lights, cooking surface features and evenness of cooking to name a few.

"Grills are certainly an integral part of our seasonal living offerings at Lowe's," said Jennifer Wilson, Lowe's public relations. "We're also carrying entirely new models (only three returned from last year's line up), including infrared technology and Charbroil TEC. We particularly expect the Charbroil TEC grills, which are the second generation of infrared technology, to be well received by our customers because of their uniqueness in the market and competitive price points."

The long-anticipated slowdown in housing construction is one factor that worries Carl Vice, general manager of Casual Living & Patio Center, Lexington, Ky. He described 2006 grill sales at his four locations as extremely flat. "Everybody else says they had good increases; I didn't see any increases, let's put it that way," he said. When asked what he thinks is causing the grill market to level off, Vice said, "Massive amounts of import products. Late in the season they started dumping product at ridiculously low prices."

For specialty retailers to survive in this climate, Vice advised offering a mix of product and price levels. "He's got to have some charcoal and electric," he said. "He's got to offer some nice stainless steel product that's not totally on the apex of the highest price level. He's going to have to offer the services — the assembly, the delivery, the fill-up with gas at the installation. Whatever it's going to take, he's going to have to do all of that. He's going to have to stay one step ahead of the mass, who are just basically selling a stainless steel grill — you pull up front and take the one that's already assembled, put it in the truck and off you go. He's going to have to be a little bit better than that level, that's for sure."

Lehrer Fireplace & Patio offers grills by Alfresco and Viking in its upper range, but Moss said it sells a greater volume of mid-price grills by Modern Home Products. Big Green Egg charcoal smokers also are catching on in the Denver area, Moss said. Quality and consumer recognition of name brands are driving grill sales, she said. The retailer advertises via radio, yellow pages and has used direct mail postcards with coupon, but also gets attention through on-site grill demonstrations each Saturday during summer months.

Reputation of ABSCO Fireplace & Patio as the local gold standard for higher-end casual living products, grills included, helps to drive traffic into the store, Lindsay said. "Locally, market share is difficult to estimate when broken down into categories, but we tend to get the educated grill customers who have shopped around extensively, done their homework and ultimately walk in our door seeking the best, the quality associated with the ABSCO name in Birmingham for more than 40 years.

"One reason grill sales are up for us is that local builders and contractors are encouraging the trend in the new home market and in remodeling and add-ons," she said. "It definitely increases the 'wow' factor we seek in our industry."

Earth Energies Hearth & Patio finds the high end to be a limited market and offers grills in the mid-price range to stay ahead of the quality found in box stores, Lund said. "We carry Napoleon and we also carry Fire Stone as a specialty. Napoleon has a really nice infrared series that's very competitive. We have one that's two sizes but one style of built-in grill that's custom for our store through Napoleon. We use that one with the builders and the landscapers as a starting point at the mid-price."

In addition to infrared features, specialty retailers say they are selling more options including outdoor refrigerators, warming drawers, side drawers and bar caddies.

"As far as the outdoor islands or surrounds, consumers are getting pretty sophisticated," Lund said. "We do a lot of standard grill cabinets but we see some pretty elaborate kitchens going in also. We're seeing people going into a little more detail, a little higher end."

Vice said he is cautiously optimistic about grill sales at specialty retail. After years of selling Ducane and Weber, his stores are going forward with FireMagic and Broilmaster grills, devoting 700 to 1,000 square feet to displays.

"My perception is there's still a shopping public out there that wants to buy better than the grill they are seeing at the grocery store, the dime store or the drug store," he said. "They want a good quality product but yet they don't want to turn loose of $1,000 for one of these shiny stainless steel grills or maybe they don't have the space on their deck or their patio. There are still some consumers out there who will spend $500 to $900 on a real good quality cast aluminum product with bells and whistles, features and service provided with the product. It's limited, granted; it's not like it was five years ago when every third customer through the door was there to spend $600 on a gas grill.

"I didn't see that happening last year and I don't know that I can expect that for 2007," Vice said. "But I do expect a lot of customers to come forward to say 'I've seen the very worst of what's out there and I've seen the very best but all I can afford or all I'm willing to put into it is somewhere in the median, what can you show me?' They're hearing stories of friends, neighbors and family members who bought the shiny stainless steel grill from a mass merchant two years ago. It's no longer shiny stainless steel; it's kind of a bronze color, yet when you try to tell them it's rusting they're not listening to you. They're saying stainless steel never rusts, never wears out, never gets old, never gets ugly. Yes, it does, especially since there's so very little stainless in those products coming in. The best way to test it is to throw the old magnet up against it and if the magnet sticks, you don't have pure grade stainless steel."

Consumers seek out grill islands, like this one at Lehrer Fireplace & Patio.

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