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Grill Myth-busters

Grill Myth-bustersTHERE SEEMS to be some reluctance on the part of specialty retailers to carry barbecue grills these days. This column is the first of three that will attempt to "bust" some of the more common myths associated with entering or staying in the grill-selling business.
Myth 1: I can't compete with big box stores
     This myth has been around for so long that one might think it's a retailer rule. But myths can be "busted," rules can be broken and this one is no different.
     That said, no one will argue that times are tough right now. But those who look for a silver lining and figure out how to turn it into cold, hard cash will be both the short-term and long-term winners.
     Case in point: Earlier this year, Weber distributed a press release under the headline "While Outdoor Grill Purchases are Down, Nationwide Study Shows Consumers are Investing in Higher Quality Barbecues." The release went on to say that according to the 21st Annual Weber GrillWatch Survey, U.S. consumers are spending significantly more for quality, durability and more features on their barbecues.
     Specialty retailers: Did you catch that? What I read is that consumers are willing to spend money on items that they perceive have value. So isn't it up to our industry to show them that real value is at the specialty store - not at the humongous home center or mass market outlet down the street?

Weber Summit Grill CenterWeber Summit Grill Center
     I checked in with a few folks in the business, including manufacturers, trade group representatives and successful retailers to find out what advice they would give to those who were trying to figure out how to go up against the home of the $200-$400 grill. Across the board, those who responded had strong opinions about how to deal with big box competition. The most-often heard advice was to stop competing, and leverage the advantages of being a specialty business.
     Bruce Bjorkman, director of sales and marketing at MAK Grills, had given the subject serious consideration and offered some very definite advice to specialty retailers who are reluctant to be in the grill business.
     "First, carry what big box won't," Bjorkman said. "If you're going to be a specialty retailer, then be one. Second, appeal to a specialized audience and present products to that group that doesn't erode your profit margin. Third, get rid of the discount mentality. Carry great products and stand up for the value that they offer, because people recognize superiority. Educate your customer about value and the return on investment. Help them justify the buy."
Viking charcoal smokerViking charcoal smoker
     Retailers echoed Bjorkman's assessment. Jim Reitzel, manager of the Fireplace and Grill Division at Fleet Plummer in Greensboro, N.C., offered an example. "Weber makes three lines," he said. "They make one for big box, one for big box and Internet, and a line for specialty retailers. I don't carry the same lines that are in big box or online."
Scott Rickett at retailer California Home Spas & Patio in Long Beach, Calif., agrees. "Home Depot is 200 yards away from us," he said. "We carry Twin Eagles, Lynx, Viking and more - all things you can't get at Home Depot." Rickett said his company also focuses on educating its customers about the value of buying a grill for a lifetime versus buying a grill to "get you by" and then having to deal with the cost and challenge of finding replacement parts.
     Focusing on customer education and other aspects of customer service was a hot topic with other retailers and high-end grill manufacturers as well. Bjorkman laid out a number of advantages for specialty shops, ranging from quicker turnaround times for products, to the ability for a customer to actually speak with the person in charge.
     "You can't get that at Home Depot," he said. Bjorkman also feels strongly about relationship building, as "people will buy from whomever they trust."
Lynx kitchenLynx kitchen
     Reitzel said Fleet Plummer gives its customer the full-service experience, starting with the full line of products they have on the floor. Their customers can walk into the store and see five colors of a Weber Genesis, and every Weber Summit grill, as well as others. Fleet Plummer also delivers, installs and services everything it sells.
     Doug Pryor, Twin Eagles sales and marketing director, feels strongly about having a full line of products on the floor for customers as well. "You can't just have one manufacturer's products on the floor," he said. "You need at least two or three manufacturers at a specific price point. If customers come to you first, and you only have one manufacturer, they're going to leave, and once they leave, they're not coming back."
     Even from bird's eye view, the observations are similar. Leslie Wheeler, director of communications at the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, notes there are those who have declared that the barbecue business is dismal and that they're losing their shirts - but on the other hand, others have managed to carve a nice niche for themselves.
     "It takes creativity, hard work and a marketing plan that makes you different than the others," Wheeler said. "Some people don't want to go through those hoops, especially in this economy. But there are successful retailers out there, and they're successful because they're creative. They work at it. For example, they provide great customer service - assembly, delivery, etc., and people will pay for service."
     So let's consider this first myth "busted" - you can compete with the big box stores when it comes to selling barbecue grills, but you need to plan the work, and work the plan.
     Stephanie Richardson has been promoting the grill industry for more than 20 years. She publishes an online newsletter at www.TheBarbeQuer.com.

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