By Lisa Readie Mayer
One of today’s hottest, just-gotta-have-it consumer products has nothing to do with cutting-edge technology, fashion apparel, or even luxury cars. It’s a cooler. To be more specific, it’s a super-premium, virtually indestructible cooler that’s overbuilt with smart features, and typically priced between $200 and $1,500.
These rugged, high-quality coolers were originally designed with sportspeople in mind. They were engineered to withstand exposure to the elements, the weight of a burly guy sitting or standing on them, and any other punishing conditions they might encounter on outdoor adventures, without lids collapsing, hinges breaking, or handles snapping off.
Since the luxury-cooler category was introduced a dozen years ago, the products have become status symbols and are now equally coveted by tailgaters, beachgoers, picnickers, backyard grillers, and all sorts of other casual weekend warriors.
A study by market research firm The NPD Group shows coolers are the fastest-growing products in the $19 billion specialty outdoor- and camping-related products category. In 2016, sales of hard-sided coolers climbed about 50%, and soft-sided coolers were up over 100%, according to the study, with the greatest growth in premium coolers.
The category originated in 2006 when brothers Roy and Ryan Seiders, fishing enthusiasts who were sick of their coolers breaking, introduced the YETI Cooler. They reasoned others were equally frustrated over flimsy gear and wouldn’t mind paying $300 – 10 times more than the going rate – for a hard-sided, rotomolded, heavily-insulated ice chest that would significantly outlast and outperform existing coolers, and in the long run, cost less and provide greater satisfaction. (Sounds a lot like the argument for buying a premium grill!)
Coral Tundra cooler by YETI Coolers.
They were right. Thanks in part to ambassador-influencer relationships forged with the likes of bull riders, sport fishermen, nature-film cinematographers, and other outdoors people, sales of YETI Coolers grew to $5 million by 2009. By 2016, the company’s annual revenue climbed to nearly $469 million, earning it the 510th spot on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing businesses. Today, the brand has achieved lifestyle status and the YETI line has expanded to include products such as soft-sided coolers, stainless-steel drinkware, utility buckets, duffel bags, apparel, and more, all sporting the company’s distinctive bold logo.
According to Daniel Mitchum, Territory Sales manager for YETI, premium coolers are a good fit for specialty barbecue retailers because they are a natural extension of their product offerings.
“Customers who shop at high-end patio and barbecue retail stores are used to and appreciate quality outdoor-living products,” he says. “They have the disposable income and want to be comfortable outdoors. They don’t want to have to rough it.”
Mitchum says the line has had “lots of interest” from specialty barbecue and patio retailers. With solid margins, the coolers are an attractive option for specialty retailers looking to expand sales to an existing customer base.
YETI’s success has spawned plenty of new competitors in the premium cooler category over the last several years. While each brand has its own unique features and benefits, most luxury coolers offer excellent durability; odor and stain resistance; thick, refrigerator-grade insulation; commercial-grade gasket seals; drainage features; and ice retention that lasts multiple days, if not weeks.
Camp Chef Cooler.
G60 Grizzly Cooler.
Pelican Elite Coolers.
Many of the products are made in the USA, and are certified as “bear resistant” by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC), an organization dedicated to protecting bears and preventing bear attacks on campers. Bear-resistant certification indicates the cooler survived a mauling by live grizzly bears without being opened or damaged to the point where the bears could access the food inside.
Pelican Elite Coolers come in a large range of sizes, from 20 to 250 quart. They are certified bear-resistant, retain ice for 10 days, and backed by lifetime warranties. The coolers come with an integrated ruler on the lid to measure fish, a built-in bottle opener, and molded-in handles (as opposed to the rope handles on some brands). Some models feature rugged wheels and a pull-handle for easy transporting.
LiT Coolers have a number of unique features, including a patented “Night Sight” rechargeable LED liner around the interior rim of the cooler that illuminates the contents at night. The light also shines through a translucent logo panel in the center of the closed lid, so owners can always find the cooler in the dark.
Food and drinks stay cold for seven to 10 days in Dometic’s Avalanche premium coolers. But the company’s CFX Series line of portable refrigerator/freezers allows users to enjoy almost any food on the road or during backyard entertaining, with no ice needed. The refrigerators/freezers can run on multiple power sources, including AC, DC and solar, with temperatures controlled via Wi-Fi app. The biggest model even has two separate, dedicated refrigerator and freezer compartments.
Orion Coolers are among the most distinctive-looking products in the category, available in a choice of 20 colors, including some with colors blended in artful, tie-dye-esque patterns. The coolers are available in five sizes, from 25- to 85-quart, with the largest reported to hold a week’s worth of food or 100 lbs. of ice or 36 bottles of wine or two processed deer, according to the company. A host of optional accessory gear can be purchased to attach to the cooler, including cup holders, side shelves, a rolling cart, and even a back support to turn it into a seat.
Lids on the American-made Bison Coolers can be customized with graphics of the United States flag, Texas state flag, camo, fish, diamond plate, and other designs. The company’s upgraded Gen2 line features enhancements over its original models, including integrated fish rulers, two-inch-thick foam insulation, a double-walled silicone seal, improved drainage, and ice retention of at least a week.
IGBC bear-resistant-certified Grizzly Coolers have eight models from 15- to 400-quart size, and plenty of options to customize with signature colors, branded graphics, lid debossing, or collegiate logos.
K2 Summit Coolers are “value priced” compared to other brands, but have more color offerings than most, including popular collegiate color combinations such as crimson and white, orange and white, and purple and yellow, in addition to camo, moss green, “mud brown,” and even pink options.
Dometic Avalanche premium cooler.
Made-in-the-USA Orca Coolers are backed with lifetime warranties, and come in 20-quart to 140-quart sizes. Line extensions include soft backpack coolers and lots of drinkware accessories, including stainless-steel martini glasses. Grill and camping products manufacturer Camp Chef recently got in the game with the introduction of its heavy-duty Camp Chef Coolers in two sizes and two colors.
One of the newest entries in the category is the Venture cooler from OtterBox. The company best known for indestructible mobile phone cases has created 25-, 45- and 65-quart coolers that are certified-bear-resistant, backed by lifetime warranties, and are reported to keep ice up to 16 days. The hard-sided coolers come with a built-in bottle opener, dry storage tray, integrated molded handles, locking latches to keep critters out, and a system for mounting accessories such as side shelves and Drybox storage cases to the outside of the cooler.
While most premium coolers are designed for utility and rugged durability, Sovaro coolers were developed for those whose outdoor pursuits lean more toward elegant living. “Sovaro coolers are more for entertainers, than sportsmen,” explains Katie Nesbit, the company’s director of Marketing.
Indeed these premium coolers would be more at home at a polo match or on a luxury yacht than at a bull-riding event or sport-fishing tournament. The stylish, hard-sided coolers range in price from $595 to $995, and come in black or white finishes with a choice of gold or silver handles and accents. They are lined with an insulating layer of sustainably sourced cork, and include a cutting-board prep tray, garnish container, luggage-style wheels, and telescoping handles.
The whimsical coolers from Think Outside are as much about sparking conversation as keeping things cool. Crafted from recycled, 44-gallon drums, the large, insulated beverage coolers are handmade by local artisans in Vietnamese villages. The unique designs, including replicas of vintage Airstream trailers, VW “Kombi” Vans, 1950s pick-up trucks, “Woody” wood-paneled surfer-style station wagons, antique roadsters, fishing boats, and more, all painted in cheerful colors, would certainly add fun to Outdoor Rooms.
Whether used for sporting adventures, barbecue smoke sessions, or social soirees, premium, status-symbol coolers help create the lifestyle experiences consumers covet. If your customers are buying high-end grills and luxury outdoor furniture, they will want a premium-quality cooler. With virtually no learning curve required, good margins, and high demand for the category among your existing customer base, premium coolers are a natural fit for specialty barbecue and patio retailers.