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To Grill Or Not To Grill?

February 19, 2010

This is going to be the make or break it year for the grill category in our store. We’ve been doing grills since the late 1980’s. We started with Ducane (well before Weber bought it) carrying grills on carts that ranged from about $400 up to around $800. At the time, $800 seemed like a lot for a pit. Within a few years, we had added an upscale all stainless prosumer grill that sold for around $3,000 on a cart. Again, at the time that seemed like a lot of money.


For years, grills sold like hot cakes. I can remember Father’s Day cook-out events where we would easily sell 20 – 30 grills on a Saturday. But over time, the market got crowded with Chinese imports and more and more retail competitors. Finally, we stopped carrying the lower end brands and specialized in only high-end brands like DCS, Lynx, and Fire Magic. True, they were much more expensive than what we carried in the past, but the grills were closer to the professional end of the category and more closely mimicked the quality of the outdoor furniture we sold.


As we moved up in price, I expected my unit volume to drop but my dollar volume to go up. That happened - - - for a while. Then the home improvement centers got into brand name stainless steel pits (did someone say Jenn Air?) and the air started getting sucked out of the category. Last year we even stopped running our Yellow Page ad under Barbecues and Accessories and cut our in-store display down to one Fire Magic Grill on a cart. Since we displayed so little,  we lost credibility as a grill specialist. That and the economy meant we only sold one grill last year. Frankly, I thought last year was the make or break year for grills and the decision was “break.”


A couple of things happened over the past few months that made me change my mind, though. First, Mary Fruehauf of Fruehauf’s Patio and Garden in Boulder, Co, an excellent retailer in our industry whose opinion I trust, told me about an outdoor kitchen area she installed at her store. She was proud of the area and when I saw pictures of it in a trade magazine, I understood why. She built an outdoor kitchen that had anything and everything a customer could want and she did it without a huge investment. How? She partnered with several contractors who built a beautiful display on the cheap after Mary agreed to refer her customers to them. Cross merchandising at its best!


Then, I spoke to Keith Guidry of Percy Guidry’s in Lafayette, another specialty retailer in our industry who I respect. He has been selling fewer grills over the last few years, too. At one time he had a whole room of his store devoted to grills. He has cut that down to a display of five or six grill; but, when I visited him recently and saw his display I realized if I wanted to have credibility in the outdoor kitchen category, I had fish or cut bait!


Finally, our Fire Magic distributor, Jeff Cunningham of Cunningham Gas visited me. He came in a pick-up pulling a large enclosed trailer. The inside of the trailer was a grill showroom on wheels. Inside the trailer they had built stucco walls into which he had set a variety of cabinet doors, drawers, pull out trash containers, and even a drawer which concealed an ice chest behind it. Another wall of the trailer was set up with displays of built-in grill heads. In a space that was about 15’ x 6’, he had a more credible display than I had anywhere in my whole store!


Jeff had some other good ideas. The most important was: grill sales on the high end are mostly built-in heads rather than cart models. To take advantage of this trend, I had to partner with someone who could reliably build outdoor kitchens for my customers. This wasn’t as hard as it sounds because I had met someone two years ago who was building an outdoor kitchen for one of my customers. After I met him, he did some concrete work for me at my home. After that I had him do some flagstone work at my store. Each time he did work with me, i was impressed by his professionalism and attitude. Like me, he understands that customer satisfaction should be the number one goal of any business. So, I called him to see if he would be interested in partnering with me in my outdoor kitchen project. He was.


We met and discussed how our partnership would work. I would set up a display area in my store showing a variety of doors, drawers, built-in grill heads if he is would build it. We would pay for the materials, he would pay for the labor for the display. In turn, the display would include his signage and an electronic album of his jobs. We would refer our customers to him so he can bid on their outdoor kitchen. They will buy their parts and pieces for their outdoor kitchen from us. He will work directly with our clients to build their kitchen using our merchandise. It seems like a win-win situation.


After finding the contractor, I had to decide how the outdoor kitchen display would look. Jeff’s trailer gave me good ideas for this. We are not going to build a full fledged outdoor kitchen in the store. That would take too much room and investment. Instead we are going to build a display wall in an underutilized area of our store. The wall will be 7’ high, 7’ wide, and 2’ deep. It will have several finishes on it to show what our partner kitchen contractor can do. We will mount a variety of cabinet doors, drawers, etc. on all sides of the display. We will even have a digital picture frame mounted on the wall with a slide show of the different products we sell and pictures of the outdoor kitchens our partner has built.


That display will take 14 square feet and we will be showing 10 of the most popular doors, drawers and cabinets our customers have been asking for. The next decision was whether we would show grills on carts or heads only. If heads only, how would we display them? Again, my thanks and a tip of the hat to  our distributor, because he had an answer to this, too. He has created a display rack for built-in grill heads that can hold two heads stacked one on top of the other. We will use two of those to show four heads total. These four heads will represent four different price points. Within each price point there are several sizes of heads. So, in an area of about 12 square feet, we will be showing the equivalent of about 15 different grill heads. All total, we are giving up about 26 square feet to show a lot of product. I think that is a pretty efficient use of space.


I am going into this project with a positive outlook and think we will be on the “make” side of the “make or break scenario.” But if we are on the “break” side, our downside risk is very small. The display wall is only going to cost us materials. The display merchandise is something I can sell at cost if I decide to get out of the category. Plus, I am not taking a lot of space from our furniture display. In fact we are going to use this area as a backdrop for furniture.

This is the area we are going to put the display in before any work has been done. I’ll post more pix of it in different stages. Wish us luck!


Yours in confused retailing, Bruce