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Barbecue bailout?

Grill Column

Americans are learning a new vocabulary. The stock market soars one day and tanks the next. Reduced credit limits, economic stimulus packages and CEOs headed to Washington to seek bailouts are now everyday occurrences.

While it's unlikely we'll observe the CEOs of Weber, Char-Broil or other grill manufacturers heading to the nation's capital anytime soon, there are valuable lessons to be learned in reviewing the predicament of the Big Three automakers. One factor scrutinized in determining requirements to make them viable again is the number of brands and models they're producing, some of which should have been discontinued years ago.

Is there anyone in the barbecue industry who has not asked whether we need the thousands of grill models currently on the market?

With the expectation consumers will be cautious in their buying patterns as unemployment soars, incomes stay flat and conspicuous consumption becomes a social negative, retailers will limit their inventory. So how many different grills will they need? If you consider the basic choices such as gas, charcoal, electric and pellet-fueled grills, then assume stores will stock several price points in each and at least two to three brands, it already adds up to a hefty assortment. Add some specialty categories such as built-ins, smokers and portables and it can hardly be called "pared back" even with just the basics.

As the number of grill brands and choices has proliferated, consumers have become increasingly confused by decisions they face in purchasing an appliance intended to make cooking easier and more fun. No doubt they would welcome simplifying the decision by having fewer choices to match the fewer discretionary dollars they can spend. Manufacturers can still offer variety and be competitive with innovative new ideas. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, they should carefully consider which consumers they can most profitably serve then focus on that audience.

I've long suggested consumers would be enthusiastic about grills that have more of the features of microwave ovens, such as allowing them to set times and temperatures, monitor progress from a remote site and be alerted when the fuel supply is low. Now manufacturers offer all this and more in their step-up models. Concentrating more effort into major innovations and improvements in limited models might bring more profits for both manufacturer and retailer. Given the changing consumer priorities, it will be acceptable to have fewer choices.

Considering today's marketplace, is there really a need to have dozens of sizes, shapes and configurations from each manufacturer? Could companies improve their profitability by staying focused to ensure the models they make are the best value for whatever dollars a consumer will invest?

The bottom line is the barbecue industry won't march off to Washington to ask for money. Why not ensure it won't need to by carefully evaluating not just the 2009 season but the changing marketplace it will face for the foreseeable future?

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