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Specialty retailers focus on foods, sizzle to recapture grill sales


Igniting grill sales presents challenges along with potential opportunities for specialty retailers.

fire magic
Fire Magic Premium grills from R.H. Peterson offer built-in and stand-alone styles.

Independent specialty retailers who are tapping into the category’s potential are doing so with careful consideration of the grill lines they selected to carry. Grills and outdoor kitchens offering high quality craftsmanship and a balanced price selection rank at the top with specialty retailers. The ability to provide versatility with built-ins and portables from a single line also is a plus in meeting the needs of retailers and their customers.

For Stephen Magnotti, president ofPittsburgh’s The Fireplace Patioplace and former chairman of theHPBA board of directors, Broilmaster became one of his top product selections due to its competitive pricing and overall evaluation as an excellent grill. Distribution served as another factor in his selection. “It also helps that we are one of the few locations in our area that sells it,” Magnotti said.

The most recent Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association survey showed specialty retailers, including casual and hearth dealers, were responsible for a relatively small 4% of the millions of grills sold in 2009. Of the nearly 15 million grills shipped to the U.S. marketplace, the vast majority went to mass market retailers.

For specialty retailers, is the grill category losing its sizzle?

Broilmaster Super Premium Gas Grill from Empire Comfort Systems is a favorite of specialty retailers.

“In the past few years, the category as a whole has lost momentum,” said Bruce Aronson, managing member of The Pool and Patio Center, Metairie, La. “Home improvement stores and Chinese imports have diluted the market.”

Carl Vice, general manager of Casual Living and Patio Center in Lexington and Louisville, Ky., summarized the situation from a retail specialist perspective. “Retailers are vacating the category,” Vice said.

On closer examination, the category does continue to entice new players, products and price selections. The 600,000 units represented by the 4% of grills sold through the specialty channel are significant, and even more impressive when coupled with the challenging retail climate. Throughout the casual furnishings industry, retailers including Vice and Aronson, have a guardedly optimistic outlook on the category and see opportunities for those willing to focus on selectivity in product offerings, creative sales techniques and innovative partnerships.

Although a top consideration within the mass, the importance of brand received mixed reviews from specialty retailers who seek sizzling sales.

kamado joe

Kamado Joe provides sales training to distributors along with online product assistance.

“In most occasions, the consumer only knows brand names of the low end models carried by home centers,” said Vice, whose stores carry Fire Magic from R.H. Peterson, Broilmaster and Dimplex. “As we dissect what the customer wants, we then can target into size, style and brand.”

Aronson, who also carries Fire Magic, said brand was a consideration and a factor in his selection. “I think it is because barbecues are so much more prone to break downs and customers want a brand (made by a manufacturer) with the wherewithal to stand behind and repair their products,” Aronson said.

Creative grill sales

Understandably, most casual retailers are focused on the sales of furnishings and the message of comfort, durability, style and coloration. Turning their sales staffs’ focus to grills does not need to pose a concern.

Having a separate staff of salespeople exclusively dedicated to grill sales is not viewed as a requirement for success in the category.

“It’s not so much a secret: Good training can make an outstanding furniture sales consultant and outstanding barbecue sales consultant,” Aronson said.

“Those (salespeople) who can visualize the customer’s use and see what they want to do with the grill are the most successful,” Vice said.

Initially, most consumers arriving in specialty retail stores know what type of grill they want. From there, successful grill sales in the specialty environment are supported by an ability to make key selling points, massage the message to increase the sale as well as an enthusiasm for the product and grilling in general.

“There is no question that a sales consultant who enjoys cooking and has some good barbecue cooking hints sells more than one who doesn’t cook,” Aronson said.

Whether focusing on style or functionality, eventually price will be a consideration for the specialty grill customer.

“We sell high end in both furniture and grills,” Magnotti said. “The salesperson can’t be afraid to sell in that price range. Consumers are willing to spend the money; you just have to show them that it is worth it.”

This is a common sentiment among specialty shops, especially with the desire to provide customers with the highest quality options.

“Ours have heavier features across the grill,” Vice said, “and they come at a price.”

Creative partnering

Continuing growth in the grill category with the addition of built-in units and outdoor kitchens has created additional competition as well as opportunities. Partnering within the category can provide another advantage for the specialty retailer.

“A new type of retailer or contractor, one who specializes in outdoor kitchens, has added to the number of competitors,” Aronson said. “That is why, this year, we are partnering with someone who builds outdoor kitchens, but who doesn’t have a showroom.”

At the suggestion of Aronson’s distributor, a display will be created to encase various products found in built-to-order outdoor kitchens. Partnering with distributors and manufacturers also can be a valuable tool for specialty retailers.

“At Kamado Joe, educating our distributors and retailers on the unique selling points of our grills and accessories is central to our marketing plan,” said Derald Schultz, marketing director for Kamado Joe.

The ability to experience the functions and features of any grill is instrumental to the sales process and makes cookout experiences by visiting distributors and sales reps all the more valuable. Manufacturers see cookouts as an investment in their distributors as well as in the retailers.

Online support is another investment manufacturers are making to provide in-depth product information to their dealers. Specialty retailers also are experiencing success even when the training comes from within.

“We have a $50 trade-in promotion and we take the grills that come in, fix them up and send them home with our employees,” Vice said. “Sales personnel then can gain a wealth of information including the possibilities, limitations and handy tips to use in selling the category. It is great recycling, too.”

Ultimately, the best partnership is with the consumer, Vice said. Once educated by a trained sales associate, the consumer can be the greatest salesperson a specialty retailer can have.

Discovering the potential specialty retail sales sizzle in the grill category can be a function of products, sales personnel, presentations and partnerships. Still, the one unknown continues to be the economy.

“Although it will be another tough year, we feel we will see more consumers who have spent money on inexpensive grills and are now looking for higher quality and willing to spend the money,” Vice said. “We are looking at probably 60% of sales in natural gas models, as the mass merchants do not offer that option on the grills they sell.”

“Considering that I plan to expand my grill section this year, I think sales will be better,” Aronson said. “This will be because we will have a larger display area that will give us credibility in the category.”

Magnotti said he expects the 2010 outlook is much like last year’s. “For most (consumers), a grill is truly discretionary,” he said. “The biggest thing we can hope for is good weather that comes early. If it is sunny and warm in early May, people will be out looking to fix up their deck or patio regardless of the economy.”

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