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Hearth & Home July 2014

PRO22 from Napoleon.

Future Looks Bright

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Consumers say they are ready to purchase a charcoal grill; if they buy from you, there’s a good chance they’ll return nine times a year to purchase fuel.

It might not be a crystal ball, but a new study by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) predicts the next grill your customers buy may be fueled by charcoal.

Hephaestus Barbecue.

According to HPBA’s director of Market Research, Don Johnson, more people indicate they plan to buy a charcoal grill next than plan to buy a gas grill.

“Interest in charcoal grills is trending upward,” says Johnson. In the coming years, this could prove to be a boost to a category in which sales have been relatively flat since 2009, and actually even declined about six percent in 2013.

Given that the average price of a charcoal grill is only $159, according to the HPBA, specialty retailers may not welcome this news with open arms. But that is changing, as manufacturers introduce premium charcoal grills made with quality materials, full feature sets and much higher price points.  

Case in point: the new Hephaestus Barbecue. Named after the Greek god of fire, the heavy-duty, USA-made, stainless-steel charcoal grill comes with an adjustable-height fire bed, dual walls insulated with a ceramic lining, seven racks for grilling, smoking and pizza-making, and a $3,500 retail price tag.

Gaucho Grill from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

But that grill is a relative bargain compared with the new Gaucho Grill from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. Starting at $17,495, the massive grill is handmade to order from quarter-in. stainless-steel panels and sports a 36-in. wheel to raise and lower the cooking surface within an 18-in. range of the fire.

While the market for four- and five-figure charcoal grills may be small compared with the volume of low-priced units sold in Big Box stores, consumers are demonstrating interest in premium charcoal grills and a willingness to pay for them.

Specialty grill manufacturers such as Twin Eagles, RH Peterson, Hasty Bake, Cal Flame, Kitchen Aid, Bull, Meadow Creek, Cajun Grill and many more, all offer charcoal grills that are premium in appearance, quality and price. Without question, the charcoal-fueled kamado category – with average prices between $800 and $1,000 – has been the fastest-growing segment of the barbecue industry for several years running.

Even manufacturers of moderately priced charcoal grills are upgrading models with cart surrounds, side shelves, easy-to-clean ash removal systems, gas-assist charcoal-lighting features, improved looks and other amenities. This year Weber introduced new colors for its One-Touch kettles (the company’s research shows 41 percent of people say they prefer color finishes on charcoal grills), added new models to its top-of-the-line Performer Series, and enhanced and expanded its Smokey Mountain Cooker line.

Dancook 1500.

Saber Grills added charcoal grills to its line-up with the acquisition of Denmark-based Dancook grills last year. According to vice president and general manager Rob Schwing, the minimalist styling has been popular with casual furniture dealers who like the “cool design element” the grills bring to the patio.

Napoleon also has amped-up its charcoal offerings, introducing models with practical innovations such as hinged, cast-iron cooking grids and tilt-back lids with offset hinges so users don’t have to reach over the fire to lift the cover.

“We took feedback from our distributors regarding what the charcoal customer wants, and used that information to enhance our grills for a better experience,” says Jim McLean, vice president Sales. “The charcoal grill category is shrinking overall, but for our company, it’s growing. People are looking for innovation and quality in charcoal grills.”

Fuel for the Fire

Sales of traditional charcoal briquettes and instant-lighting briquettes have been mostly stable the past few years, but natural lump charcoal sales have been on a growth trajectory, jumping 16 percent in 2013. The experts say the increases in lump charcoal – irregularly shaped pieces, or “lumps,” of pure, charred hardwood made without additives, binders, fillers or petroleum products – are in large part attributable to the growth in kamado-style cookers, for which lump is the recommend fuel.

Ironically, the popularity of kamados also may be preventing lump sales from climbing even more; because the grills are so efficient, any remaining fuel after cooking can be extinguished, saved and reused at the next cookout.

Cowboy Charcoal Gold.

The lump charcoal category is further evolving with new and specialized offerings. Cowboy Charcoal, a subsidiary of Duraflame, just introduced Cowboy Charcoal Gold, a 100-percent bark-free hardwood charcoal that promises to light faster, generate more heat, and produce less ash than standard lump. A growing number of lump charcoal producers now offer mesquite and coconut-shell varieties, as well.

Dealers say repeat fuel business is a great source of sales and profit. According to the HPBA, charcoal grill owners purchase charcoal an average of 9.5 times per year, compared with gas grill owners who purchase propane 3.2 to 3.7 times per year, depending on whether they exchange or refill their tank. What else might you be able to sell a customer who walked into your store nine or 10 times a year?  

Fuel sales alone present a compelling case for carrying charcoal grills. But here’s another: a long list of complementary accessories such as fire starters, wood chips, after-market temperature-control devices, waterproof charcoal containers, fireproof ash pails, and more that bring charcoal-grilling enthusiasts back to the store and continually buying.

Furthermore, the relative simplicity of the designs and lack of moving parts on charcoal grills means there are few problematic service calls with which dealers have to contend.  

Finally, there’s one intangible business-booster with charcoal grills that doesn’t quite translate to gas: the opportunity to build relationships and bond with customers. Prove yourself as a credible resource for information and advice on techniques, lighting, smoking, wood flavor profiles, recipes and other charcoal-related topics and you’ll win a customer for life.

There’s no crystal ball needed for that!

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