Jesse Burkhart -- Casual Living, 2/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
Planet Earth is a big place, so Duff Dixon's proclamation that Ontario Gas BBQ is the "World's Largest Barbecue Store" sounds presumptuous. But if truth is found in numbers, then Dixon has some pretty convincing evidence to support his claim.
From its humble beginnings in 1981 when Ontario Gas BBQ measured no more than 800 square feet, Dixon – president of the store but who refers to himself as "Chief Barbecue Nerd" in his email signature – now operates a barbecue retail enterprise that stretches across more than 51,000 square feet of floor space. He employs eight full-time sales associates that, himself included, boast a combined 121 years of experience and 17 grills owned. And Dixon relies on his eight-person staff – which balloons to 15 during the peak grilling months – to sell the 190-plus grills that are on his floor at the time of this writing.
With those numbers attaching merit to Dixon's "world's largest" claim, product selection and expertise can be identified as competitive advantages for his business, which Dixon classifies as a "destination" in the Toronto area.
"We can do anything," he said. "If a customer comes in, we can deliver the grill, assemble it and run a gas line. When we leave their house, they can be standing there with a platter of marinated steaks ready to hear the sear. And as soon as a [new] product arrives, we'll rip it apart and make sure that we know all of the nuances of it. My guys are so knowledgeable."
David Burt, built-in specialist for Ontario Gas BBQ, is one of Dixon's guys. Having joined the store in 2004, Burt said the seasoned, well-established sales staff is the key component that distinguishes Ontario Gas BBQ from the competition.
"There are a lot of things, but mostly it's about us," Burt said. "We all barbecue and we all know about what we sell. We know every single product inside and out. All of us have had the opportunity to cook on everything that we sell, so we have a very good understanding of what the outcome will be for the customer, and we can advise them accordingly. That's truly unique from a big-box environment."
To advance the idea that his store offers a specialized know-how not found anywhere else, Dixon has dedicated his business exclusively to the barbecue category. Ontario Gas BBQ sells only grills, barbecue accessories and products related to the ambiance of an outdoor kitchen such as firepits and outdoor heaters.
The Charcoal Room – 1,000 square feet of space strictly dedicated to fuel – showcases a profusion of charcoal brands from all over the world. Dixon calls charcoal a “fabulous product” because of the repeat business it generates, and Ontario Gas BBQ now sells more than 50 tons of charcoal each year.
"We're not in patio furniture or indoor hearth products as many of my competitors are," Dixon said. "Staying category-specific has made our store a destination. We're considered to be experts, and so we're a natural destination for anyone who is passionate about cooking out of doors."
Not only has Dixon entered into a monogamous relationship with the barbecue category, he has an unwavering loyalty to North American-made products. The store's primary lines include Weber, Napoleon, Broil-King, Viking, Lynx, DCS and Fire Magic – all companies who manufacture on this side of the Atlantic.
"I've been in this business so long I can look at a barbecue and tell you if it's going to stand the test of time," he said. "Now, you can make good stuff in another country, and you can make bad stuff. But most of the stuff I see in grocery stores and big-box stores that's imported is junk. It's made to meet a price point of $199 or $299, and usually the ability to service it or get parts is lacking."
Dixon's decision to prioritize quality ahead of price point has resonated with customers. After the economy collapsed in 2008, he began to notice a large number of customers specifically asking for North American-made products.
|Organization drives Duff Dixon’s visual merchandising strategy. So customers can logically navigate 51,000-plus square feet of grills and barbecue accessories,
product is grouped by category and then subdivided by manufacturer and price point.
|Toronto, the fifth-most populous city in North America, gives Ontario Gas BBQ
a large trading area to draw upon. “With this much square footage, [the store]
wouldn’t work in a small town,” Dixon said.
"We noticed people attaching value to their money," he said. "I have a Canadian-made barbecue here for $239 that, in my opinion, will outperform anything made offshore you would see in a grocery store. What's better value – paying $199 for something that will die in two years, or paying $299 that you will have for many years and that I have the parts for? We have yet to see an offshore manufacturer offer quality that will beat what we sell."
And a bag of chips
For the first-time customer who walks into Ontario Gas BBQ, looking over a sea of square footage occupied by nearly 200 grills and a gaggle of barbecue accessories could be an intimidating view.
Dixon, however, keeps it simple for the customer. Everything is grouped by category, then manufacturer, then price. For example, in the store's gas barbecues section, Dixon packs his selection of Weber grills into three tidy rows, with the grills lined up from the highest price point to the lowest.
The store also offers "The Charcoal Room," an approximately 1,000-square-foot area exclusively dedicated to fuel. Dixon said he stocks 10-15 brands of charcoal at any given time and now sells more than 50 tons of charcoal each year. "Charcoal is a fabulous product because the profit margin is good and it's a consumable, meaning [the customer] comes back," he said.
With 50,000 square feet at his disposal, Dixon has the luxury of carrying a vast selection in virtually every category having to do with grills and barbecue accessories, making it difficult for the competition to offer a product that he doesn't have.
"We're the first to get the new stuff, and that is one of a number of reasons why we're a destination that people can't pass up when they're looking for this kind of product," Burt said. "If you're looking for something, we've probably got it. We're not picking and choosing based upon the fact that we only have 8 feet of space in our store to show you something."
To ensure that his inventory aligns with consumer demand, Dixon often queries his sales associates as to what they should be selling more or less of.
"[Dixon] will often ask, ‘Do you think we can sell this or that?' or ‘Should we have more of this or that?' because we are the ones having the dialogue with the customers on a day-to-day basis," Burt said. "There's so much choice that you want to put your best foot forward and display the things that you're talking about with the customer."
Whatever it is customers are asking of the sales associates at Ontario Gas BBQ, it's probably not anything the World's Largest Barbecue Store doesn't already have.
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