A Mirror of 2008!
By Lisa Readie Mayer
None will debate that 2020 has been a rough year for everyone, and particularly, for small, independent retailers.
But there also has been good news amid the doom and gloom. Some barbecue and patio retailers and manufacturers have seen sales increases – by as much as 80% – during the lock-down period and beyond.
So, what did they do differently?
They recognized that people were stuck at home needing to feed and entertain their families, and found creative ways to connect with these consumers to provide grills, fuel, fire pits, outdoor furniture, take-out meals, and other items to fill this need. In short, they quickly adapted their approach to doing business in the new normal.
“None of us wanted a new normal – we liked the old normal just fine,” says Brad Barrett, founder of the grilling accessory company GrillGrate. “But there are good things coming out of this. More people are getting fired up about using their grills. Even grilling newbies and people who grilled very occasionally are discovering grilling. One customer sent us a note saying, ‘I’ve never grilled before, and now I can’t stop!’
“Grilling is becoming central to family and home life,” he continues. “It could be a golden age for our industry.”
“One of the neat things we’re seeing is families are reuniting around the grill,” agrees Lisa Gilliatt, owner of The Grill Works in Marion, Iowa. “People are home, they have time to cook, and they’re looking for ways to keep the family busy.”
The trend has led to significant sales increases in her store. By May, Gilliatt’s grill sales were up 78% over last year, with growth across all grill categories, accessories, and fuels. “We’re selling grills so fast we can’t keep them in stock,” she says. “We would receive 45 grills on a Monday and they were all presold. We would have another 95 grills coming in the following two weeks, and most of those were already presold.”
Starting March 30, the store transitioned to phone, Facebook, and email orders with contactless curbside pick-up, and once re-opening was allowed, began taking in-store appointments. It also created a temporary outdoor sales floor so customers could shop in an open-air environment.
Jonathan Huddleston and Tracy Hopson saw similar growth at Grills of Mississippi, the barbecue supply store they co-own in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Though relocating the store to a bigger space with greater exposure just prior to the pandemic contributed to some of the increases, according to Huddleston, April’s sales volume exceeded total sales for the last quarter of 2019.
“People are home cooking with a grill they’re not happy with and want to buy a new one,” says Huddleston. “Or they have the time to try a pellet grill. Since pellet grills have the convenience of gas with great wood flavor, it’s easier to convert gas-grill people to pellets, and we’re seeing a lot of that. One month, we sold over 100 units of one pellet grill.”
Huddleston has also seen major increases in accessory sales, with rack systems, GrillGrate grids, and pizza accessories among the biggest sellers. “We sold more pizza ovens for Green Mountain Grills in six weeks than in the previous six months,” he says. “And we’re going through 6½ tons of pellets about every 12 days.”
Without the ability to sample, sales of the store’s 450 varieties of rubs, sauces, injections, and marinades, aren’t enjoying the same record increases, but Huddleston says they have remained steady. “We have brought in five or six new rubs since COVID-19 started and have had no trouble selling them,” says the former competition barbecuer. “Customers trust our recommendations.”
The retailers sell local grass-fed beef and other food products, and have a catering license, so were deemed an essential business. They took advantage of discount prices offered by meat and food vendors who would normally supply shuttered restaurants, and started selling family-style, cooked meals for take-out.
Tony Roberts outside of the new Proud Souls Barbecue & Provisions location.
“The first time we posted about the meals on Facebook, we sold out 15 racks of ribs and 12 pork butts in 15 minutes,” says Huddleston. “The first week of cooking we sold 235 racks of ribs, 145 pork butts, six cases of briskets, and 450 quarts of side dishes such as mac-and-cheese, baked beans, green beans, potato salad, and white chocolate-chip bread pudding.
“We were cooking 24 hours a day and cleaning in between cooks, in addition to being busy at the store. We dedicated one employee to cooking take-out meals six days a week, before cutting back to Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays as demand tapered down.
“It will definitely be something we’ll continue even after the pandemic. We thank God that we haven’t missed a beat through this.”
Just as the shutdowns began in mid-March, Tony Roberts was set to launch his second location of Proud Souls Barbecue & Provisions in Denver, joining the original store he opened in Littleton, Colorado, three years ago.
“We were too heavily invested in time and money to pull the plug, so you can imagine the stress level,” says Roberts. “But our business model is built around backyard family gatherings, and I thought those kinds of things might be even more important now in light of the current circumstances.”
He was right. Both stores started seeing a sales boom the last two weeks of March. “We had been experiencing organic growth prior to the shutdown,” says Roberts, “but if you compare against the normal trend line of 25% growth, April was up almost 85%.”
Because the stores had a small meat case and a grocery license, they were deemed essential businesses and remained open. Though meats were not big sellers prior to the crisis, Roberts began promoting them heavily online, positioning the store as a contactless source of meat and an alternative to empty grocery-store cases.
They offered in-store or curbside pick-up, as well as free deliveries on meat, grills, fuels, and accessories, initially with no minimum order. “One guy wanted us to deliver a package of bratwurst all the way to Colorado Springs – which we didn’t do – but most of our customers appreciated that we were offering delivery and ordered a number of items.”
Roberts’ customers also invested in grills and smokers during the pandemic. “We’ve seen people purchase a second grill,” he says. “We might have sold them a Yoder smoker last year, and now they want a kamado or a PK Grill, or a pizza oven. They had one tool in their grilling arsenal, and now want more.”
Roberts says sales of grilling accessories, charcoal, pellets, wood chunks, and chips are “booming,” too. “We’re selling more GrillGrate smoking accessories and shelves, and we can’t keep cast-iron cookware in stock. People are looking for something fun and different. They have time to experiment.”
The retailer believes the home-grilling trend will continue. “Customers I talk with are questioning how safe it is out there and saying they’re not rushing back to restaurants,” he says. “Folks who would have gone out to dinner on a Friday or Saturday, are getting excited about cooking at home. They realize this is a lot of fun and the food is really good.”
More Good News…
Philip Hechler of Hechler’s Mainstreet Hearth & Home in Troy, Missouri, says people are reevaluating what’s truly important. “Now that they’re not running around taking kids to activities, they’re staying home and doing puzzles together. Instead of spending money at restaurants, they’re making quality meals at home,” he says. “Barbecue sales are very strong as a result, and the same is true for the meat market around the corner. Business has absolutely boomed.”
The store’s grill sales were up 80% year-over-year in April, and were up more than 20% through the third week of May (the time of interview), with pellet grills enjoying the biggest gains. Daily transactions on the hardware side of the business increased 35% to 40%.
“People are coming to my store because they feel comfortable and less exposed than at a big home store,” Hechler explains.
Located one block from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Sisset’s…A Fun Twist on Home & Patio, typically gets a lot of foot traffic from parents visiting their kids, and from people taking pets for treatment at the University’s vet school.
But with the school closed, and in-store shopping prohibited due to the virus, sales of the store’s gift items, patio furniture, indoor and outdoor decorative accessories, outdoor acrylic ware, and other merchandise, fell 54% during the early days of the shutdown, according to owner Melissa Glikes.
However, thanks to adopting creative sales and marketing strategies, and the lifting of in-store shopping restrictions in May, Glikes says business has been “really, really, really good,” with sales up 70% over the same period last year.
Glikes taught herself about Facebook advertising and had the store’s website rebuilt for e-commerce. She also offered private shopping hours, and phone orders with curbside pickup.
Glikes came up with the idea for “Happy Store Gift Bags,” named for the upbeat vibe in the store. The colorful gift bags, filled with assorted merchandise like melamine tableware, napkins, cookbooks, soaps, and notecards, curated around a theme, were offered at price points ranging from $25 to $125.
She took to Facebook Live every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to promote the bags, assigning each a number for easy order-by-number reference on phone and Facebook orders. Bags could be picked up curbside, delivered locally for $5, or shipped anywhere.
“It’s worked out really well,” says Glikes. “People may be home, but life hasn’t stopped. They still need gifts for birthdays, Mother’s Day, and other occasions. We could help people bring cheer to friends and family.”
Melissa Glikes with a “Happy Store Gift Bag.”
The store took advantage of a manufacturer’s discount and ran a “very successful” sale on C.R. Plastic Products poly furniture, “advertising it like crazy.” Glikes also gained several thousand square feet of no-cost display space for the furniture by cross-merchandising at a nearby landscape nursery that was deemed an essential business.
“I was driving by this great nursery. I didn’t know the owner, but stopped in on a hunch and asked if we could display our poly furniture there,” she explains. “He sells pavers and built-in fireplaces, so having the furniture helps improve his displays, too. This has given us exposure to customers who have never been to Sissets, and we send our customers to him. Customers call us right from the nursery and buy over the phone. They can either take the furniture home from the display or we’ll deliver. It’s been a great relationship.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry this (virus) has happened, but we have learned different ways to operate, which has been kinda fun,” she says. “If you sit idle, nothing is going to happen. You have to make it happen. We’ve stayed really busy and did not have to furlough any employees.”
Rob Woodward, owner of Woodward’s Service Center in Forest, Ontario, Canada, says his 30-year-old store lost sales while shut down from March 24 through mid-May, but customers’ pent-up demand has resulted in a spike in business since then. “If we can end the year within 5% to 10% of last year, we will consider it a success,” he says.
Adapting marketing messages to address consumers’ current concerns has resulted in “a lot of phone calls regarding grills,” according to Woodward. “Our marketing used to focus on the reliability and durability of our grills,” he says. “Now, we’re reminding people that, if they’re not planning a holiday, getting a new barbecue might be a fun way to cook at home. We’re promoting the diversity of foods that can be grilled – not just hot dogs and hamburgers, but pork tenderloins, rib roasts, vegan recipes, desserts. We’ve taken the word ‘entertaining’ out of ads, because people won’t be doing much entertaining this summer.”
Communicating that the store provides assembly and delivery, and will take away an old barbecue, has also been effective, says Woodward. “People value these services. They’re less focused on price, since it’s not easy to go to a store or to get rid of an old grill.”
“People are looking for ways to enjoy their backyards, and grills offer good entertainment at a good price point,” agrees Jason Baker of Green Mountain Grills. “Our dealers tell us grill and fuel purchases are skyrocketing.”
The demand propelled the company to proceed with the launch of its new Prime Plus grill with interior grill light, collapsible front shelf, rotisserie, and heavier grates. “Launching a new product in the middle of the COVID crisis was not exactly what we planned, but it has done well,” he says.
Baker points out that, while some parts of the country, such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, and Texas, have experienced “crazy good” double-digit sales gains; dealers in highly impacted states such as California and New Jersey have not seen the same surges.
Hoping Supplies Hold
In addition, retailers are starting to experience supply-chain backlogs due to increased consumer demand, and challenges such as warehouse closures, manufacturers’ administrative staffs working from home, and volume delays at shipping companies.
Dealers report pellet-, charcoal-, and wood-fuel order fulfillment has stretched from a week to as much as a month out. Grill orders, previously filled in three or four days, might take up to six weeks. A spice-rub supplier to Grills of Mississippi was backordered after its bottle and label sources shifted to supplying hand-sanitizer producers.
“We’ve all become accustomed to just-in-time delivery,” says Hechler. “Storing a lot of inventory in a warehouse is from the days of yore. It works until you have an unexpected event that changes the playbook and depletes inventories quickly. I could sell more if I had more product, but there’s no immediate re-stocking supply in the pipeline.”
Outlook for Outdoor Kitchens
On a brighter note, an analysis of Google Trends data by Blinds.com shows online searches for yard and patio topics are up 50% over last year. According to the report, this is a “signal that people are looking toward getting outside and maximizing use of their outdoor space.”
Some dealers are already seeing inquiries up on outdoor kitchens and outdoor living products. Interest seems to be greatest in turnkey fire pits and modular outdoor kitchen systems that can be ordered, installed, and ready to use this summer.
“In this climate of economic uncertainty, people are worried about home values and jobs, so the big $100,000 outdoor-living projects are not happening now,” says Roberts. “But we’ve recently been seeing more customer interest in Napoleon’s Oasis modular outdoor kitchen systems and Fire Magic’s Ready-to-Assemble modular outdoor kitchens.”
Grills of Mississippi has been promoting outdoor kitchens, outdoor TVs, and other Outdoor Room products during the period. “People are not traveling on vacation, so they’re thinking about fixing up their houses with a covered outdoor-living space and an outdoor kitchen to enjoy their time at home,” says Huddleston. “I believe this trend will continue for a while.”
Support for Small Business
More good news: Many retailers are finding the crisis has activated a strong community desire to support small businesses.
“The situation has been unfortunate, but it’s showing people the value of local businesses,” says Gilliat. “Small businesses may have been thought of as cost-prohibitive, but now people see that is not the case. They appreciate the personal attention, convenience, and customer service we provide. We hope to establish long-term relationships with these new customers.”
Glikes was encouraged by the number of customers who supported Sissets with purchases during the shutdown, and is returning the love by writing each a personal thank-you note. “Now that we’ve reopened,” she adds, “people are coming in saying, ‘This is the first place I’ve shopped.’ How cool is that?”
Woodward has received positive feedback for his efforts to safeguard in-store shoppers. “We offer disposable masks and hand sanitizer by the entry door, as well as a trash can to dispose of masks on the way out. The masks cost a buck a piece, but it’s the price of doing business in the new world.”
Creative and quick adaptations like these are helping retailers navigate today’s uncharted waters. It’s good news we can all use.
If you have some good news to share, we want to hear it! Please email Editor, Richard Wright (firstname.lastname@example.org) to tell us about it.