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Hearth & Home July 2020

CB60E San Francisco Bay from Regency Fireplace Products’ City Series.

Despite the Pandemic

By Bill Sendelback

Manufacturers and dealers are showing that where there’s a will, there’s a way to sell gas products.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a massive curve ball at the world, and it certainly has not spared the hearth products industry. But even with many hearth product dealers temporarily (we hope) shut down, manufacturers of gas hearth products are selling and shipping a surprising number of gas products. Most are realistically optimistic about this year and the future, and most are concerned about the survival of each of their dealers, and are actively trying to assist them through this crisis.

The majority of manufacturers report good and even excellent 2019 sales of gas hearth products. But, interestingly, the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) manufacturers’ shipment numbers don’t reflect strong gas hearth product sales last year. Their numbers, including gas fireplaces, stoves, and inserts – but not gas logs – indicate that U.S. sales of these products were down almost 5%, and Canadian sales of gas hearth products were down almost 15%. One explanation is that not all manufacturers report their shipment numbers to the HPBA. Or is it possible that some manufacturers over-state their sales numbers?

Besides the COVID-19 pandemic, the biggest concern for the gas hearth products industry is the growing number of municipalities and areas that either have or are trying to ban natural gas in residential new construction.

“For many environmentalists, greenhouse gases are a bigger concern than the COVID-19 crisis,” according to John Crouch, the HPBA’s director of Public Affairs, “and some cities such as Sacramento, California, are even proposing incentives to replace gas appliances in existing homes. The 20- and 30-year-olds are focused on the issue of greenhouse gases. That threat has not disappeared during the COVID-19 crisis. Like the threat to wood stoves decades ago, this threat will appear in surprising places.

“Hearth product dealers need to speak up in favor of natural gas,” Crouch says. “Our dealers have a real stake in this, and it could negatively affect their business. Dealers need to keep the HPBA apprised of what is going on in their area. The good news is that gas utilities have awakened to this threat and are beginning to organize against it.”

Manufacturers of Gas Products  

Sales of gas hearth products last year were “phenomenal” for Regency Fireplace Products, according to Glen Spinelli, president. “Sales were steady for fireplace inserts, and we saw a nice increase in gas fireplace sales, with sales of our newer City Series gas fireplaces way up.

“Nobody knows what will happen this year with the COVID-19 crisis, but so far sales are pretty good. Orders are steady, and we have plenty of early-buy orders although they are somewhat fewer than in 2019.” But Spinelli is wondering whether the COVID-19 crisis will bring delays from suppliers of needed parts for manufacturing.

Spinelli is looking at Regency’s market in Australia as perhaps an indicator of what may occur this year in North America. “Australia, too, has COVID-19 problems,” he says. “The country is counter-seasonal to North America, but even with their COVID-19, our business in Australia this year has picked up tremendously.”

Regency is surveying its dealers daily to see how they are coping. “Seventy percent are still operating, even if they are only doing quotes and installations,” he says.

Spinelli sees a trend toward more expensive gas fireplaces, especially in its strong-selling, linear, ducted City Series. “The consumer today has so many more options,” he says. New models in the City Series include the CB60E San Francisco Bay fireplace, a 60-inch companion to the 40- and 72-inch sizes. The CV60E New York View is a new flush-mount model. Regency’s linear City Series is now available with crystal ember beds or optional logs placed on those crystals. “We’ve added a new 30,000 sq. ft. New Innovation Center research and development facility.”

TruFlame 40-inch direct vent indoor/outdoor see-through fireplace from Empire Comfort Systems.

Sales of gas hearth products last year were “very regional” for Empire Comfort Systems, according to Nick Bauer, president. “Sales did well above the Mason-Dixon line. It was cold in the Northwest, but the South never got cold.” Direct-vent gas fireplaces sold well for Empire Comfort, along with fireplace inserts, says Bauer.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have no idea how sales will go this year. We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best. Through the first quarter our orders were up, with more early-buy orders than we had last year at this time, even though our dealers say their sales are off an average of 20%. The orders we have received perhaps were for products sold prior to the pandemic.”

Bauer sees linear styling now as an established market that the company is addressing. “We’re more into the custom home market, so we’re selling more large, high-end, gas fireplaces in the $8,000 to $10,000 retail price range. To meet the demand, we’ve introduced 50-, 55-, and even 72-inch gas fireplaces.” But Empire Comfort also is introducing smaller direct-vent linear fireplaces in 32- and 42-inch sizes. “These are more basic, not so fancy models at lower prices, from $2,000 to $3,000,” says Bauer.

“Our Outdoor Room business is exploding. People now are afraid to travel, so they’re staying home and putting money into their backyards.” Along with Empire Comfort’s line of outdoor gas fireplaces, the company has introduced a higher-end, 40-inch see-through, indoor/outdoor model.

Element4 Club Series from European Home.

European Home saw its 2019 sales of gas hearth products do “very well,” says Chris Weiner, Sales manager. “It was a solid year with our direct-vent and vent-free models selling well, along with an uptick in sales of our outdoor gas fireplaces.” Weiner says this year sales started well, too. “At mid-year we were still receiving orders and were shipping product. There still seems to be demand in homebuilding, and we’re hopeful that it will pick up more in the fall.”

The good news, says Weiner, is that most European Home dealers are at least open to doing installations during the pandemic. “But many are in survival mode, and we’re trying to help them survive,” he says. To help dealers, the company has hosted more than three dozen product training sessions by Zoom to help dealers have more successful sales efforts during these stay-at-home times.

Efficiency in gas models is a “big trend” that Weiner sees in today’s marketplace. “Our dealers are hearing from consumers about their growing concerns regarding efficiency, so we’ve made that a focus.” While contemporary linear styling still is a strong trend, European Home is seeing customers leaning toward more traditional fireplaces featuring logs, rather than modern, glass ember beds.

“More and more customers today want big, robust log sets, making their fireplaces look more sophisticated and more high-end.” And Weiner sees an “uptick” in sales of the company’s vent-free models “because of the ease of installation and the lower costs.”

New from European Home is its Sky T M model by Element4, a vertical, see-through, gas fireplace that was a Gas Products finalist in the 2020 Vesta Awards program. Also a finalist in that category was the company’s Element4 Summum 140 T linear, see-through, gas fireplace. New, too, is European Home’s Cupido 50 and Cupido 70, slim, gas fireplaces by Element4; only eight inches deep to facilitate installation in small, tight spaces. European Home also has introduced a traditional, 40-inch outdoor gas fireplace offering a choice of linear or campfire burners.

Hearthstone stoves had a “flat” 2019 sales year with its gas stove line. “We’re hearing a lot of pessimism about this year, but I think we’ll have a strong sales year,” says Dave Kuhfahl, president. “Dealers are now selling other products such as spas, hot tubs, and grills. We’ll have a rebound. Yes, we’ll have some casualties among our dealers, but most will make it through this.”

Hearthstone is not introducing any new gas stoves this year. “We’ve been very focused on getting our wood stoves certified to the NSPS Step 2 standards,” he says.

Kuhfahl sees a “strong desire” in the hearth market for standing pilots rather than IPI in gas hearth appliances. “That’s because of the simplicity of standing pilots. They are reliable and always work.”

Heat & Glo Foundation Series Bay Fireplace from Hearth & Home Technologies (HHT).

Sales of gas hearth products showed “strong growth” for Hearth & Home Technologies (HHT), particularly in gas fireplace inserts, says Julie Milum, vice president of Heat & Glo Brand Marketing. “It helped that last year we introduced and emphasized a new product line, but we saw good sales growth in all gas hearth product categories.”

Like most manufacturers, Milum sees 2020 as a “really challenging sales year. We’re anticipating pent-up consumer demand, but it’s unpredictable as to when that will kick in, particularly in an election year. Fortunately, our dealers seem to be finding ways to stay afloat.

“Customers now have more product choices, but they continue to want more, and are always looking for what’s new,” she adds. While HHT sees a trend toward new finishes, such as antique brass, and mixed finishes and textures, this year the company is focused on expanding its Smart Home-type of connectivity, allowing customers more ways to easily interact with and control their hearth products by using their smart phones.

Jøtul GI 645 Astrid with matte black rectangle steel overlay.

Gas hearth products sales were up about 4% last year for Jøtul North America, according to Bret Watson, president. Gas models are becoming a larger part of Jøtul’s product mix, he says. They represented 52% of Jøtul’s sales in 2018, and 60% last year; so far this year, gas models are at 62% over Jøtul’s wood-burning appliance sales. The first quarter of 2020 was Jøtul’s best first quarter ever, “before sales slowed in the second quarter. We’re a build-to-order company, so we can quickly react to market changes.”

Watson sees a trend in gas models to more transitional styling from Jøtul’s more traditional models. “We’ve moved to simpler, lighter, more transitional, cast-iron accents,” he says. Even with today’s trend toward IPI, Watson says some customers still want the simplicity of a standing pilot.

New from Jøtul is its GI 645 gas fireplace insert that, along with Jøtul’s current 635 and 535 transitional models, results in two medium-sized and one large-sized insert in that line.

FV48 with Birch HD Log Set from Mendota Hearth / Johnson Gas.

“Last year’s sales were great,” says Ron Schinnerer, Sales and Marketing lead for Mendota Hearth / Johnson Gas. “We had tremendous sales growth, and so far this year we’re more optimistic than we were in April, but we all still have a ways to go.”

Mendota is making a point of keeping “very good, immediate” communications with its dealers during the COVID-19 crisis. “We get an update every two weeks from each dealer. They all have individual needs, and there are a lot of different ideas on how they are surviving. Some have closed their doors until things with the COVID-19 virus improve. Dealers who have been successful so far seem to be able to pivot to new positions or ideas to help them survive. We’re keeping our dealers close, showing them they can count on us to help make their lives easier.”

A dealer sales aide introduced by Mendota is its “Picture It” Apple or Android app that allows dealers and their customers to design their fireplace installations online. “Homeowners virtually can see their fireplace in their own home,” says Schinnerer. In fireplace designs, Schinnerer has noticed a trend toward what he describes as a “mid-century transitional,” landscape-shaped fireplaces similar to the shape of today’s TV sets. In Mendota’s linear gas models, Schinnerer says opening heights are increasing, and there is a movement back to logs.

New from Mendota are its ML54 gas fireplace, a linear model with an optional power vent, the FV48 FullView 48-inch landscape gas fireplace, and the ML60, a larger, linear gas fireplace with taller glass and optional arched fronts. Mendota also is updating its linear ML39 and ML47 models now with optional ember bed lighting.

The DelRay from Montigo.

Montigo had a “good year” last year in its sales of gas hearth products, with sales up across the board, according to Jonathan Burke, president and CEO. “We were up by double-digits in the U.S., but we were flat in Canada where we expected disruption in our sales due to a change in distributors.

“We anticipate a pretty good 2020, but sales definitely were down through April,” he says. “Residential sales are a challenge with many showrooms not open, but our inquiries and quotes for commercial jobs are as numerous as ever. No one knows how long this crisis will last, but we’re hopeful that low interest rates and pent-up demand will stimulate new construction and remodels.”

Linear styling still is “super strong” for Montigo, especially in the Southwest U.S. where sales of linear models have “taken off,” according to Burke. “We’re not seeing much return to traditional logs, but we are seeing more demand in urban areas for smaller fireplaces for today’s smaller homes.”

New from Montigo are its DelRay 36 and DelRay 42 linear gas fireplaces featuring shallow depth for smaller fireplace footprints. Montigo’s C View is a more custom gas fireplace featuring advanced controls and lighting. The company is also updating its older products. “We’re putting more focus on efficiency,” Burke adds. “Consumers are becoming more savvy about efficiency.”

Altitude X Series from Napoleon Fireplaces.

Napoleon Fireplaces had a “great” 2019 sales year with its gas hearth products, according to John Czerwonka, vice president of Hearth Sales. “Our gas fireplaces and gas fireplace inserts both showed sales growth, particularly in the mid- to higher-end price points. Our inserts enjoyed high double-digit growth after introducing a new line to replace older models.”

In the first half of 2020, Napoleon products were backordered from “strong” sales, with a five-day delay in shipping rather than the company’s normal 48-hour order turnaround.

“While focused on employee safety during this COVID-19 crisis, we were operating at 80% capacity through the first half, but we were back to full operation by mid-June,” says Czerwonka. “We see light at the end of the tunnel. People are staying home, and many are making home improvements. The whole industry is down, but we see major sales growth in 18 months. It will be 2021 before the industry gets back to 2019 sales levels.”

Sixty percent of Napoleon’s dealers are open for business, says Czerwonka, “but 85% of those are open only by appointment or for curbside product pickup.” Czerwonka stresses that, in this critical time, dealers need to strengthen their online presence with a more professional website and to start promoting their stores. “Dealers have to put themselves out there to the consumer, also by using social media. Dealers who are doing this are in good shape.”

Napoleon sees sales growth with its mid- and upper-priced products. While clean-faced fireplaces are trending, Napoleon is seeing double-digit sales growth in its linear models. “Consumers want more options so they can tailor their fireplace to their décor and differentiate it from that of their neighbors,” he says.

New from Napoleon, and showing strong sales growth for the company, has been its Elevation and Altitude Series of modern, clean-faced gas fireplaces featuring a double-burner with low flames in front and high flames in the rear, a variety of ember-bed media options including logs, and six different trim packages. The company also plans to introduce three new gas fireplaces by the end of the year, good-better-best models aimed at new home construction. “We’re shooting to introduce four to six new products a year,” says Czerwonka.

Gas hearth product sales at Pacific Energy Fireplace Products for 2019 were “about even” with 2018, especially the company’s Town & Country line. “But we were up 20% in 2018, so we feel pretty good about holding on to that gain,” says Cory Iversen, North American Sales manager.

This year sales of the Town & Country brand are growing with a “good uptick” in sales of traditional models. Pacific Energy is seeing the COVID-19 crisis having some impact on its sales, “but it is not too severe yet. New construction seems to be continuing on,” says Iversen.

“We’re seeing both ends of the spectrum with our dealers. Most seem to be holding their own, while some have shut down during the crisis, and several are seeing sales exceeding previous years. The ones who are determined to stay in business are finding ways to do just that.”

New from Pacific Energy in its Pacific Energy brand is its Z25 in the Tofino line, a new, 25,000 Btu, smaller gas fireplace for smaller homes. It is also redesigning many of its models, e.g., expanding birch logs as an offering in the Town & Country products.

Real Fyre DVIT-30i direct-vent gas insert from RH Peterson Co.

RH Peterson Co has seen “steady” sales of its high-end American Fyre Designs outdoor gas fireplaces, says Bob Dischner, senior vice president of Marketing. “This is a solid business, but not a strong growth category, more of a niche product for us.”

Peterson also offers its Real Fyre brand gas fireplace insert in 25-, 30- and 36-inch direct-vent models. “We’ve introduced a contemporary version, but our sales strength still is in models with logs,” he says. In Peterson’s American Fyre Designs brand, the company has added two new modern looks to its popular Brooklyn line.

“We don’t know how this COVID-19 crisis will impact our season, but naturally we expect sales will be a little softer,” says Dischner. “A lot of dealers have temporarily shut down, but even though some businesses are closed, many still are selling online, giving product and job quotes, and offering service and parts. It really depends on their geography. But we’re maintaining phone contact with our dealers to see how they’re doing and to see what we can do to help them,” he says.

THIRTY8 built-in direct-vent gas fireplace from SÓLAS.

Last year was a “good sales year” for SÓLAS, according to Patrick Moynihan, founder and president. “It was an ‘up’ year for us as we worked hard to expand our distribution and add new products. This year has been a challenge, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised and encouraged to still be shipping products. But we don’t know if these sales were from projects in the works before the COVID-19.”

While expanding SÓLAS’ distribution, Moynihan faced an interesting revelation. “SÓLAS has been built on contemporary styling of its gas fireplaces. But as we expanded out of our usual East Coast market, we found that, suddenly, we had to offer traditional-styled models.” SÓLAS now offers all of its models either in contemporary styling with glass ember beds, or with traditional logs. SÓLAS has also added transitional styling in its new Model THIRTY8 gas fireplace featuring an opening that is more square than in linear styling.

L1 linear fireplace from Valor.

“We had a good sales year in 2019, with sales up modestly,” according to Paul Miles, president and director of Sales for Valor Fireplaces. “The year started slow, but the second half was a lot better after the best fall we have ever had. Things were rolling along until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.”

During the current crisis, Valor’s gas stove and fireplace insert sales have been hit the hardest, while the company’s gas fireplace sales have been less affected. “Stoves and inserts go into existing homes while fireplaces normally go into new-home construction, or remodeling projects where social distancing can be maintained,” Miles believes.

Valor dealers are “seeing life again. Things are starting to come back. There’s more traffic now, so sales are starting to happen,” Miles says.

Valor is seeing a trend toward bigger, higher-priced gas fireplaces so far during the crisis. “Blue collar consumers are more price sensitive customers, and that segment of our population has been hit harder.”

Valor has been upgrading all of its products to include the new V-Class burners that offer better performance and more realistic flames. New from Valor is its interactive remote control that offers fire voice control, a feature now standard on Valor’s Linear Series of gas fireplaces.

Valor’s new G3.5 and G4 gas fireplace inserts feature the new V-Class burner and optional birch logs. The G3.5 insert also has optional new craftsman styling. Other new Valor gas fireplace models include the Linear Series L1, L1 See-Thru, L2, and L3 models. New H5 and H6 models will appear later this year.

Woodbridge Fire Feature outdoor gas fireplace.

Woodbridge Fireplace did “okay” in 2019 with its gas fireplaces, says Tony James, president. “But this COVID-19 crisis really took the wind out of our sails this year. We were up 3%, but at the beginning of this year we thought we would be up 15% to 20%. Obviously, this year is not quite business as usual.”

James sees a trend toward larger, higher-end gas fireplaces in both indoor and outdoor installations. “Outdoor fireplaces are going to go crazy. People are willing to spend the money, and now they plan to spend more on their backyards rather than taking a chance on traveling.” Woodbridge gas fireplace sales now are split 50/50 between indoor and outdoor models.

Commercial gas fireplace projects now are 25% of Woodbridge’s sales. “Commercial sales are all over the map in creativity, and these sales are not faltering with the COVID-19 crisis.”

New from Woodbridge is its See-Vue indoor/outdoor gas fireplace, in four sizes up to seven feet long. Already offering 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-ft., single-sided and see-through models, the company is introducing bay and pier outdoor models in 3-, 4- and 5-ft. widths.

Time will tell how 2020 sales will go for all hearth products. But those offering gas models seem surprisingly upbeat, and with the sales to prove their optimism.

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