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Hearth & Home January 2017

Revillusion from Dimplex.

Wake Up Mom & Pop!

By Bill Sendelback

It’s the right time for electric fires, a category that has shown remarkable strength and resilience throughout the downturn.

Right now, everything seems to be going well for electric fireplaces.

  • Environmental and regulatory issues are challenging the future of wood- and gas-burning hearth appliances.
  • New-home builders have discovered that electric models are easier, and thus less expensive, to install without the need for venting or plumbing.
  • Consumers are discovering the increasingly realistic flame effects and the unique features available in electric models.
  • It all adds up to steady, continued sales growth – and major sales totals in North America.

The hearth industry has no reliable sales data for electric fires, but knowledgeable manufacturers suspect almost mind-boggling annual sales totals. It has been estimated that 1.5 million electric fires are being sold annually in North America. Contrast that with the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s (HPBA) 2015 shipment data of 963,628 total units – that total includes numbers for cordwood, pellet, and gas appliances, as well as gas logs.

A few years ago, one consumer-direct supplier reported its sales, including its Amish-made cabinetry, of over one million units. That supplier apparently is no longer selling electric fires. However, many hearth manufacturers continue to estimate the total market at more than 1.5 million units, and some even claim the market now approaches two million.

“The total market is bigger than what we think, closer to two million,” says Kim Hammill, director of Electric Fireplaces for Napoleon Fireplaces.

“Two million seems optimistic,” says Gary Kramer, manager of Marketing Communications for Dimplex North America. “That would be a 33 percent increase, and that seems like a very big jump.”

Unfortunately, the majority of those electric fire sales are coming via mass merchants. “The sales of electric fires at Big Box stores are staggering,” says Brian Richards, president of Amantii. One manufacturer was recently approached by Midwest home center giant Menards to quote on 47,000 electric fires. They turned down the opportunity, and have no desire to deal with such a large chain.

Model 32II040FGL with flame effect and Safer Sensor features from Twin-Star International.

Finally, an increasing number of specialty retailers are warming up to electric fires, and more manufacturers are focusing on that channel for their sales growth.

Electric fireplace sales have been “pretty darned strong” for Amantii, according to Brian Richards. “Sales in the U.S. are way up over 2015, and October was our best sales month ever in the U.S.” Richards says Amantii has been enjoying double-digit sales growth for the last few years.

Besides strong sales to homebuilders, Amantii is getting a “better reception” from old-time hearth dealers who have been resistant to electric models. “The dollar volume of the cheap models sold by the Big Box stores is low and it’s a ‘plug and play’ product, and while models going to the specialty retailer may be more expensive, they offer better quality and more features that the consumer is looking for.”

New from Amantii is its TRU-View model in three sizes, plus the company has updated its wall-mount models to also be flush mounted. Other new models that are 14-in. deep can be flush mounted, or be open to the left or the right or three-sided. Also new is an 11-piece log set, the same set as used in the company’s Sierra gas fireplace.

Classic Flame’s patent-pending Electric Lantern Heater.

Classic Flame by Twin-Star International is seeing continued solid sales growth for its electric models, according to Gregg Grevlikh, vice president of Product Development and Marketing. The company has found that consumers are “worried about safety,” says Angela Scarbrough, senior Product Marketing manager, “so we’re focusing on safety with our new patent-pending Safety Sensor that automatically shuts the heater off if an object blocks the sensor.” This is in addition to Classic Flame’s Safety Plug that keeps multiple items from being plugged into the same outlet, creating a heat problem.

Classic Flame is seeing a trend toward more of a furniture look for electric fires, with a gray finish becoming more common. The company is selling more linear models, and more models used as multi-purpose furniture.

New from Classic Flame are integrated sound systems for use with a television set or smart phone, and including Bluetooth capability. New patent-pending, three-dimensional flame effects are now available in fireplaces, inserts and stoves, offering realistic flames “with dimensions” to complement more realistic log sets.

Also new is Classic Flame’s patent-pending Electric Lantern Heater, a floor-standing model featured as room décor but including an infrared heater that can heat up to 1,000 sq. ft.

Dimplex North America is finding that its sales of electric fires are becoming “particularly strong with specialty hearth dealers, the channel we’re focusing on, along with homebuilders,” says Gary Kramer. He thinks the total market for electric models has been “pretty flat – not the explosive growth of the past.” However, he says, sales to new-home builders are growing, along with the increase in new housing starts.

Kramer speculates that linear electric models have “now maxed out on size.” While Dimplex offers models up to 102 in., he says the “sweet spot” in sales is 50 to 74 in. with 50-in. models being “wildly popular.” Models for hospitality and commercial use will continue to lean toward larger sizes.

Homebuilders and consumers alike prefer flush-mounted or very shallow models. “They don’t want the unit to bite into the room space,” he says. Mantels, too, are seeing “a bit of a resurgence,” with white continuing to be the preferred finish, especially with homebuilders.

Dimplex just launched its Revillusion model, a 2016 Vesta Award winner. Available in 30-, 36- and 42-in. sizes, the Revillusion features more realistic flames utilizing a clear reflection panel and logs all the way to the back of the 14-in. deep model that fill the firebox.

Some new models from Dimplex can use either 110-volt or 220-volt electric power. Dimplex’s Opti-Myst model continues to be a strong seller, particularly with hospitality installations, and the Opti-V Aquarium model, with its colorful fish rather than flames, “blew through” its initial sales forecast, according to Kramer. “It’s a different idea and popular in commercial reception areas.”

Traditional built-in electric fireplaces are selling well in 2016 for Hearth & Home Technologies (HHT), with electric fire sales up by “modest double-digits” from 2015, according to John Shimek, senior vice president of Brand Marketing and Product Development.

“This is indicative of a shift in homeowners’ preferences; they are looking for something more permanent than a wall-hanging fireplace,” he says. HHT expects electric fires to grow in 2017 as homeowners consider them as a second or third option in spaces such as bedrooms, basements and structures where venting or gas are not options.

SimpliFire built-in 36-in. from Hearth & Home Technologies.

Linear models, however, continue to be popular, says Shimek. As a result, HHT is evaluating its line with thoughts of more built-in, contemporary designs. The company also is “refreshing” its electric line for 2017.

While Innovative Hearth Products (IHP) is seeing more interest in electric fires from specialty dealers, mass merchants are putting “tremendous focus” on electric models, according to Don Kaufman, Product manager. “But we still think there is a future in electric models with specialty retailers.”

Astria Arcturus from Innovative Hearth Products.

IHP is making improvements in its line that will hit the market in March and April. They will include easier flush-mount installations, and service without having to remove the unit. A new model will be a four-in. deep, wall-recessed unit that can still be a heater now that IHP has relocated the heater and designed for small vents in the top and bottom of the unit. “We’re looking at features that will appeal to Millennials, such as connection with their smart phones,” says Kaufman.

“We’ve been blessed with sales growth over the last five years,” says Tom Foy, general manager of Modern Flames. “This has been a really good sales year; we’re up 25 percent.” Electric fires are continuing to trend toward bigger sizes and linear styling, he says. “A lot of them are being used in conjunction with entertainment centers or with big screen TVs above them.”

FusionFire Steam Fireplace from Modern Flames.

Modern Flames is seeing more and more interest from specialty dealers and new-home builders. Sales for hospitality uses are particularly hot since electric models are safer for their customers with less or no heat when compared to a wood-burning or gas fireplace.

New from Modern Flames is its Fusion Fire that has been in development for two years and features patented technology. The Fusion Fire projects its flames onto steam to produce large, 12-in., random and “very realistic” flame effects.

Electric fire sales got off to a slow start this year for Napoleon Fireplaces, but sales are now doing “very well,” says Kim Hammill, director of Electric Fireplaces. “We kind of dabbled in electric fires for the last three years,” she says, “but now we’re putting more focus on them.”

Allure Phantom series from Napoleon.

Electric fires have received “a lot of push back” from hearth dealers, says Hammill, but now with the environmental constraints of wood and gas models, dealers are more accepting of electric models. Only a small percentage of consumers know about electric fires, she says, so even though Napoleon doesn’t sell to mass merchants, the exposure of electric models through that channel is educating consumers, offering opportunities for specialty dealers selling better quality models.

Sales of wall-mounted models are growing along with more contemporary styling, says Hammill. “We’re seeing mantels with a more traditional look coming back.” She says consumers are “going bigger. They come in to the store looking for a 32-in. model and leave with a 60-in. model.” New technology includes LED lighting so the customer doesn’t have to turn off the room lights to view the flames.

Model GBL 64-in. built-in electric fireplace from The Outdoor GreatRoom Company.

Electric fire sales for The Outdoor GreatRoom Company are good, about the same as last year, according to Steve Shimek, vice president of Sales. “There’s a lot of competition at the consumer sales level with the Big Box stores. But we’re seeing more new-home builders interested, particularly builders of multi-family units, and we’re working with architects and designers as well.”

Shimek points out that electric fires “make more sense than gas in warmer climates because you don’t need that much heat.”

The Outdoor GreatRoom Company wants to increase its line, in particular with electric fireplace inserts. “Electric models offer a seasonality that complements our outdoor living offerings,” he says.

There seems to be no reason that sales of electric fires can’t continue their striking growth. Maybe it’s time for hearth dealers to ignore the inexpensive electric fires sold by the Big Box stores and take advantage of increased consumer interest in more expensive and full-featured models.

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