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Alfresco Grills ALXE series.

Outdoor Kitchens Rule!

By Lisa Readie Mayer

The trend is toward built-in grills, not cart grills, which means that dealers will be able to sell a slew of related products.

Charcoal grills may be grabbing the attention lately, but gas grills are still the cornerstone of consumers’ outdoor living spaces. The latest Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) consumer survey reveals that of the 75 percent of U.S. adults who own a grill or smoker, 62 percent of them own a propane grill and 10 percent own a natural gas grill.

Though the trend is for gas grills to share space on the patio with grills of other fuels – 53 percent of grill owners own a charcoal grill, 12 percent own an electric grill, and two percent own pellet grills – a gas grill is the common denominator among three-fourths of all grill-owner households.

A number of gas grill manufacturers have indicated their sales are back to pre-recessionary levels, thanks to significant growth in recent years. Others said a run of foul weather during the 2015 key selling season hampered sales this past year. However, the outlook for growth is encouraging. According to the HPBA survey, 37 percent of total U.S. adults, and 45 percent of current grill owners plan to buy a new grill in the next year. Another bright spot for brick-and-mortar retailers: 83 percent of recent grill purchases were made in-store versus 11 percent online.

Here is a look at some of the key trends that are expected to influence gas grill product development and sales in 2016.

Basics vs. Bells & Whistles

According to the HPBA survey, consumers rank taste of food, quality construction, safety, and price as the most important considerations when buying a grill. Far lower on the priority list are features such as rotisseries, sideburners and the like. Manufacturers intent on loading up cookers with digital controls, Wi-Fi programmability, and other nice-to-haves, may want to reconsider.

Frank Mello, vice president, Sales & Marketing at Bull Outdoor Products, says that consumers are realizing many of the extra bells and whistles added to some grills tend to be “gimmicks that increase the chances of performance problems.” He adds that as grills move up in price points, consumers do expect added features, “but the trick is to give them features they will actually use that don’t affect the reliability of the grill.”

Model P3SX gas grill from Empire Comfort Systems.

42-in. grill from Coyote Outdoor Living.

According to Nick Bauer, president of Empire Comfort Systems, makers of Broilmaster Grills, “Sometimes manufacturers offer the best-engineered product that consumers don’t want.” He says the industry has a tendency to overload grills with features, but asks, “How often do people really use them? It’s better to find out what features are really important to consumers and provide them as options that they pay for only if they want them. Our dealers tell us it’s better to offer grills with feature-upgrade packages at good, better, best pricing like a car dealer would. We are able to have more SKUs because we manufacture in the U.S. and can more easily react to what people want.”

Gina Lathrum, Brand Marketing manager, North America, at DCS by Fisher & Paykel, says, “The most important bells and whistles are the ones that drive performance. We know the DCS consumer wants a high-performance grill that sears on the entire grilling surface, has the best rotisserie, and maintains even temperatures throughout.”

Jim Ginocchi, president of Coyote Outdoor Living, says consumers are looking for grills with accessories that provide the same flexibility as indoor appliances; for instance drop-in griddles that can cook non-traditional foods such as pancakes or eggs on the grill. He says other sought-after features are those that offer the capability to smoke, roast and slow-cook. “Grilling has become much more diverse and has really gone beyond just hamburgers and hot dogs,” says Ginocchi.

Built-in Grills for Outdoor Kitchens

Manufacturers say the trend is moving away from cart-based grills to built-in grills for outdoor kitchens. While the 2015 HPBA consumer study shows just 10 percent of U.S. grill owners currently have an outdoor kitchen, more than a third say they want to upgrade their outdoor spaces. The experts say that, in some areas of the country, built-in grilling islands have already become the standard, and this trend is spreading throughout the U.S. and Canada.

36-in. grill with rotisserie from DCS by Fisher & Paykel.

Built-in grills for outdoor kitchens are the ticket to higher per-sale totals, according to Lathrum. “Specialty retailers need to continue to focus on complete outdoor kitchen solutions,” she says. “Once the grill head is sold, the rest of the (outdoor kitchen) products naturally follow.”

“The heart of the Outdoor Room continues to be the cooking area, which today involves one or more built-in grills – predominately gas, but might include one gas and one charcoal – side cookers (and other appliances and components) built into a custom island,” says Jerry Scott, senior vice president Sales & Marketing, R H Peterson Co.

Ginocchi believes, “The built-in market will continue to grow more than cart-model options. The built-in market is a relatively new concept and will continue to grow at a high percentage into 2016.” Because an outdoor kitchen purchase usually includes more than just a grill, Ginocchi says retailers have an opportunity to expand the sale to include other complementary built-in appliances and components such as sideburners, pizza ovens, beverage centers, storage units and overhead infrared heating.

“For us, outdoor kitchen sales have always outpaced carts,” says Frank Mello. “These sales are strong and are the backbone of our business.”

Echelon Diamond E1060s-4EiN-51W from R H Peterson Co.

Bauer is hoping the new Broilmaster stainless-steel grill line planned for next year will open doors for the company in the outdoor kitchen market. “Our goal is to offer built-in gas grills and outdoor kitchen components that the average person can afford,” he says. “You don’t have to spend $50,000 for an outdoor kitchen; you can get a good one for a $5,000 to $10,000 investment.”

Value Price

In fact, this emphasis on affordable quality and value remains a key industry trend and a major factor in gas grill purchase decisions.

“The value of every dollar spent is a huge focus (for consumers),” says Lathrum. “I believe as consumers become dollar-conscious they appreciate products that are longstanding. Our consumers are willing to invest in performance, quality and reliability.”

“Thirty-in. grills are still our number-one selling size,” says Mello. “There are a lot of new guys competing on price at this size, but we have chosen to move up from our base retails by adding value and improving our grills’ performance. For instance, we’ve introduced new burner technology that improves heat distribution by 50 percent. Consumers want a quality grill with a lifetime warranty from a company with the credibility to offer it.”

Brian Eskew of Twin Eagles says the company’s value-priced line, Delta Heat, is growing “exponentially.” This year, Twin Eagles’ will introduce its new Delsol line that, according to Eskew, will be priced even more aggressively than Delta Heat.

Eskew says value-priced gas grills and components are helping to break open the outdoor kitchen category. “The perception among consumers is no longer one of Outdoor Rooms being only for the wealthy,” he says. “Value-priced products provide the opportunity to complete an Outdoor Room on a budget,” he says. “There are many more consumers who want Outdoor Rooms and outdoor kitchens than those who already have them. This means there is significant opportunity for retailers. The value-priced products have opened up the market to a much broader base of consumers.”

Delsol 32-in. built-in grill from Twin Eagles.

That is Bauer’s goal as he expands Broilmaster’s outdoor kitchen offerings. The company’s cast grills have been a gold-standard for quality, value and durability since they launched 50 years ago. But, according to Bauer, “The good news is that our grills last for 50 years. The bad news is that it looks like a 50-year-old grill.”

He says consumer preference for stainless-steel finishes has led to soft sales of the “old reliable” cast grills the past couple of years, a situation he hopes to turn around with the introduction of a new stainless-steel/Broilmaster line planned to roll out in 2017.

Last summer, the company bought the future design and manufacturing rights to the Vermont Castings Signature Series grill line to help jump-start its launch into stainless-steel grills. According to Bauer, “We will use 50 to 60 percent of the current Vermont Castings grill design, and will redesign and upgrade the rest to our standards. The acquisition fast-forwards the process and saves us about 30 percent of the time ordinarily required to launch a new line.”

Empire Comfort Systems did not buy the Vermont Castings brand name, nor does it assume any responsibility for existing Vermont Castings grills in the marketplace. Vermont Castings will handle warranty fulfillment on previously produced Vermont Castings grills.

Empire Comfort Systems will market the new line, which will also include complementary outdoor kitchen components, under the Broilmaster brand.

The company will continue to offer its Broilmaster cast line, introducing a few tweaks including a limited edition control panel design for 2016, in honor of the grill’s 50th anniversary.

“We aim to offer good, better, best lines that are value-priced in the $1,200 to $2,500 range,” he says. “Markets change and shift as peoples’ tastes shift,” he says. “If we don’t change with them, we won’t survive as a company.”

Grill Finish

One thing that hasn’t shifted much in the last decade is consumers’ preference for stainless-steel grills; that finish still dominates the gas grill market. But that could be changing. Weber’s most recent GrillWatch consumer survey shows 54 percent of females and 46 percent of males prefer color on their grill.

Last year, the company’s introduction of six new color options – orange, fuchsia, green, purple, blue and black – for its Weber Q line of small portable gas grills was met with a positive response. But whether color catches on with consumers and other manufacturers remains to be seen.

High-End Has a Place, Too

“There is still a strong base of luxury consumers, and we are still realizing double-digit year-over-year growth on our Twin Eagles line,” says Eskew. He advocates that retailers implement a “good, better, best” strategy in their stores.

                        The “Know Bull” kiosk.

“You need different price categories to suit a wide range of consumer budgets,” he says. “We sometimes see that having the more value-priced products alongside the high-end products can help consumers understand and justify the higher price points, as many of the product differences are visible and tangible.”

Manufacturers are working hard to develop turnkey marketing and merchandising programs to help retailers in that effort. For instance, this year Bull, which recently introduced its premium, full-featured Elite Series grill line, is offering retailers an in-store selling center called “Know Bull,” that incorporates a grill head, outdoor kitchen components, and a TV for running videos. The small-footprint, stand-alone kiosk adds excitement to the sales floor, according to Mello, and is effective at driving home product benefits and telling the quality story behind the price.

New Products in Pipeline

Manufacturers have not revealed many out-of-the-box introductions to the gas grill category for 2016. However, a number say they will unveil new products, or tweaks to existing ones, at the HPBExpo in March. Stay tuned.


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