Cleaner, more efficient and more expensive, propane-fired barbecues have passed charcoal models in popularity. It’s good news for retailers looking to do more with their outdoor living departments.
According to the Barbecue Industry Association, American consumers fired up their grills 2.7 billion times in 1995. When those consumers barbecued, more than half (55%) used liquid propane (LP) gas grills. In addition, says the Naperville, IL-based association, 55% of all grill owners say the next one they buy will be an LP gas grill.
What accounts for the popularity of gas grills? The association offers three reasons: timestrapped consumers want the immediate gratification that quick-starting gas grills provide; simplicity (no need for charcoal and lighter fluid); and consumer preference for large cooking surfaces, side burners, attached tables and storage drawers–all standard in todays upscale gas grills.
Grill buyers want quality
“We don’t carry lower-end gas grills,” says Thomas Nitz, vice president of Nitz True Value Hardware in Brookfield, WI. And it’s not just because the 16,000-sq-ft store is located in an upscale suburb of Milwaukee. “As the market matures, people are looking to get into better-quality grills. They want something that lasts longer and cooks more evenly. Gas grills with better options have taken off in the last two to three years.” They’ve taken off so much that gas outsells charcoal 10-to-one at Nitz True Value.
The average gas grill purchased at Nitz used to be between $400 and $500. Now that the store’s grills cost as much as $3,000, the average purchase price is $700. Barbecue Industry Association figures back up the store’s findings.
“Five years ago, people thought $299 was a lot of money to pay for a gas grill,” says Donna H. Myers, spokesperson for the Barbecue Industry Association. “Now, that’s your starting price point.”
Myers says features on gas grills have driven price points upward. Such features include side tables to season and slice, condiment caddies for sauces, bastes and butters, hooks to hang grilling utensils, md warming racks or side burners for delicate or slow-cooking food.
“Our best-selling gas grill has the ability to cook directly or indirectly,” says Fred Barnes, a buyer with Colonial Home and Garden Center in Evansville, IN. Grills have become one of this three-unit HWI member’s fastest-growing product categories, and its ratio of gas-to-charcoal grills is seven-to-three. “They use direct cooking for steaks, hamburgers and shish kebobs, and can slow roast a Cornish hen, turkey or ham. People like that capability of cooking large pieces of meat for longer periods of time.”
Better-quality gas grills have encouraged female consumers to join the ranks of this once male-dominated pastime. According to the Barbecue Industry Association, female heads of households were 57% more likely than men to make the decision to barbecue in 1995. Nitz True Value’s customer base supports that statistic.
“This business used to be a guy kind of thing, but now women are making more of the buying decisions,” says vice president, Nitz. “I think with the gas grills, it’s becoming similar to turning on a stove.”
Convenience grilling options tell only part of the gas grill story. When consumers step up to quality gas grills, they want the aesthetics to reflect it. That’s evident at Bustleton Hardware in Northeast Philadelphia.
This 6,000-sq-ft Servistar store carries gas grills exclusively because, according to store manager, Lou France, “most people can afford $150 on lower-end gas grills.” The fact that stainless steel, cast iron and aluminum gas grills are rust-free is also an important selling feature. So is their size.
“We still sell a lot of small charcoal grills, but the bigger gas grill sales far outnumber them,” says Bob Andrews, general store manager for a Tampa, FL-based Scotty’s do-it-yourself home center. “Gas grills are bought by people who entertain large groups of people, or have extended families that host lots of social events.”
In the past three years, gas grill sales have risen sharply, while sales of charcoal grills have dropped significantly. Retailers expect the trend to continue, as second- and third-time consumers choose gas grills for their next purchase. Says Nitz of Nitz True Value, “People are just fed up with burning meals on charcoal grills.”
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Smart retailers expand barbecue season sales to include service and accessories that make grilling easier for customers. The result: one-stop shopping for consumers and repeat business for the retailer.
As gas grill sales grow, so does the need to replace the liquid propane that powers them. The average propane gas grill owner purchases fuel every eight-and-a-half months, according to the Barbecue Industry Association. Add to that consumers who purchase propane for portable heaters, branding irons and car equipment, and providing propane tank filling begins to make sense.
Blue Rhino Corp. has capitalized on this growing market. More than 1,000 hardware stores and home centers now participate in the Winston-Salem, NC-based propane-supplier’s cylinder-exchange program, including The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sears Hardware and Scotty’s. Once a retailer agrees to join the program, Blue Rhino meets with him to determine the tank display site, handles all regulatory work local authorities require for propane storage, sets up the entire display and assigns the retailer to a delivery route so tanks get replenished on a regular basis.
“One of the things that people look for from us as an independent retailer is grill assembly,” says Fred Barnes, buyer for Colonial Home and Garden Center, an Evansville, IN-based HWI member. Doing so gives the three-unit dealer a leg up on big-box competition.
Colonial Home and Garden doesn’t charge for assembly, but does charge for delivery.
“(Some of) these grills are rather large and difficult to even get into a van,” says Barnes. “We charge a local delivery fee of $15.”
Bustleton Hardware of Northeast Philadelphia takes it a step further. Besides offering delivery as far away as the city’s western suburbs, the store makes house calls to repair grills.
“We try to carry every model available in terms of parts,” says Lou France, manager of the Servistar store. “We have a corner on the parts and grill business.”
Among the grills displayed on the raised-brick, 15×15-ft patio at the front of Colonial Home and Garden Center are accessories that most every barbecue needs: hickory chips, grill brushes, cooking mitts, and other essentials. Most are bought from March to September, accompanying a primary grill purchase. Other accessories can influence off-season sales on their own merit.
When Colonial Garden Home and Garden Center sold lots of charcoal grills as gifts at Christmas time, accessories went just as fast.
“We sold everything from grill brushes and aprons to shish kebob skewers and tool sets,” says store buyer, Barnes. “It’s a very-round thing for us because we’re a year-round home and garden center.”
The increasing interest in grill accessories hasn’t been lost on manufacturers. Longtime cookware specialists including Ekco, known for its kitchen utensils, and Nordic Ware, which invented the Bundt Pan, have branched out into the grilling accessory business. They offer long-handled cooking utensils and specially designed grill cookware, respectively. Both show evidence of the growing importance of the grill accessory market for the home improvement retailer.