Retailers poised for profit by incorporating grills into patio store
Jesse Burkhart -- Casual Living, 6/1/2012 2:00:00 AM
When the tortoise beat the hare, he taught those familiar with the fable a slow-and-steady lesson in perseverance. But even the tortoise will admit he never made progress without sticking his neck out.
Now accustomed to a crawling economy that has fundamentally changed how an outdoor furniture retail enterprise operates, many of today's retailers have implemented business strategies befitting the tortoise. But retailers who have stuck their necks out beyond outdoor furniture and into the barbecue category say they've been able to pick up the pace and appeal to a new customer by selling grills, barbecue accessories and outdoor kitchen equipment alongside their furniture groupings.
"Casual retailers who don't sell grills and barbecues are missing a complete market segment that leads to add-on sales and repeat customers," said Josh Rowell, president of Casual Furniture World in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Many times a customer will add a grill onto a furniture sale or vice versa."
Retailers adding the barbecue category to their product mix give their customers a reason to return to their store for consumable fuels or accessories, converting a one-time grill buyer into a multiple-time shopper.
"People don't buy patio furni ture on a frequent basis, but once you start adding a grill line such as we have with the Big Green Egg, we have customers who come in here once a week or once every couple of weeks just picking up accessories for the grill product," said Faye Schimke, store manager for Housewarmings in Lexington, Ky. "So the customer will become a repeat customer, and you have them in the store looking at all your other new product as well."
The consequence of not offering barbecue product, retailers warn, may be losing a customer to a competitor who does offer the complete outdoor room in a one-stop retail setting.
"If [a customer] bought that patio furniture with you and they're ready to buy a grill and you don't have it available, that's just revenue that you're not going to make," said Keith Guidry, co-owner and manager of Percy Guidry's Hearth & Patio in Lafayette, La. "Because you didn't sell grills, they may go over to your competitor, buy that grill and see that there is nice patio furniture over there, too. So next time that customer needs something, he may shop [that competitor]."
For those who see opportunity in the barbecue category but aren't sure of the best way to seize it, retailers advise attending the industry's trade show Superbowl, the annual Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo, held last March in Atlanta and scheduled for Orlando in 2013. Boasting scores of manufacturers exhibiting grills, barbecue accessories and outdoor kitchen products, it's the ultimate crash course for barbecue newbies.
Knowing the competition is just as important as knowing the product. Retailers suggest that purchasing decisions be guided by what competitors are offering and then stocking the sales floor with contrasting product.
"Look and see what your competition is in your area and look at what you can do to differentiate yourself from your competition," Schimke said. "If you can offer something that somebody else doesn't have, that's going to be a draw for your consumer."
Housewarmings has made itself into a barbecue destination in part because it has carved out its own market niche by becoming the premier dealer of a single grill line. The store is known for carrying the Big Green Egg and its accompanying EGGcessories while offering classes and other events tied around the Egg. As a result, Eggheads flock to the store for their accessory fixes or just to sharpen their outdoor cooking prowess.
"Either you're in the grill business or you're not. Don't go in halfway," Guidry said. "Nothing that we are halfway committed to has been successful."
That doesn't mean smaller retailers can't grab a piece of the barbecue pie. Guidry said he knows retailers in small buildings that set up outdoor kitchen displays outside their stores where they hold cooking demonstrations in order to reserve floor space just fo r new products.
"You don't have to have 150 grills on the floor to be in the grill business," Guidry said. "To be successful, you don't need 7,000 square feet. I would venture to say you probably don't even need 1,500 square feet. It's not how much space you give up to it as much as what it looks like and how committed you are to it."
BEATING BIG BOX
Some retailers cite neighboring big-box competition as an objection to getting into the barbecue business. But therein lies a golden opportunity for creating a unique market position - one built on offering premium outdoor cooking products and comprehensive service and expertise not found at mass merchants. Brian Eskew, marketing manager of premium grill manufacturer Twin Eagles, said specialty retailers can begin differentiating themselves from big box by understanding where consumer demand is shifting toward.
"We see consumers trending toward outdoor kitchens and built-in barbecue grills," Eskew said. "The big-box competition is not selling the outdoor kitchen - they're selling barbecue grills. For me, the winning strategy for the casual furniture retailer is an outdoor kitchen strategy that includes some freestanding barbecue grills. "We're not asking [casual furniture retailers] to reinvent themselves, we just see outdoor kitchens as a logical extension of the business that they're already in," Eskew added.
Bonnie Richins, general manager of Anaheim Patio & Fireside, is on the same pa ge with Eskew, offering higher end grills at her three Anaheim, Calif.-area stores and staying away from the aggressive price points found at mass merchants. "You can never compete with the big-box stores on price - it doesn't matter what we're selling. You have to romance [consumers] with all the bells and whistles that the big box doesn't have."
Before-sale expertise and after-sale service are other areas in which specialty retailers can differentiate themselves from mass merchants.
"Our replacement parts business is just as important to us as selling the grill because a customer can come back after four or five years and say, ‘I need this for my barbecue,' and we can give it to them," Richins said. "Then they are still our customer, and that's really important. You're still offering a service to a customer that Wal-Mart or a Lowe's doesn't have."
Hosting grilling classes and other events is also helpful for a retailer in establishing a connection with the consumer that big box doesn't pursue.
"Tags and literature can only convey so much, but actually seeing the grills in action can seal the deal," Rowell said.
Whether it's attracting a new customer demographic, generating add-on sales or harvesting the promise of the emerging outdoor kitchen category, the barbecue business has something to offer furniture-only patio stores.
"We're all trying to look for new ways to bring customers into the store, and if you don't step out of the box a little and try something you'll never know," Richins said.
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