Off-Season? No Such Thing
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Think outdoor cooking has an “off season?” If so, you’re off the mark.
The latest consumer survey by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) shows 60 percent of U.S. grill owners now use their grill year-round. This trend is increasing (up from 56 percent in 2010), as people seek out the smoky flavor, convenience and fun of grilling and smoking long after Labor Day.
HPBA reports more Americans than ever are using their grills on pre- and post-summer holidays such as New Year’s (15 percent), Super Bowl (31 percent), Easter (18 percent) and Thanksgiving (15 percent) – all up over 2010 figures.
Weber’s latest GrillWatch survey indicates 33 percent of grill owners even fire it up when the temperatures are below freezing.
Despite this news, there are few places for committed barbecuers to buy grills, accessories, fuel, seasonings and other related gear year-round. The nation’s biggest retailers, warehouse clubs and home centers follow an “early in, early out” strategy, which explains why, on a 95-degree day in early August, you can find light-up snowmen, holiday wrapping paper and artificial Christmas trees on the sales floor, but you can’t find a barbecue grill or a bag of charcoal.
“The competition for holiday shopping dollars is cutthroat,” says Janet Shamlian in an NBC News report.
This is good news – and a potential sales bonanza – for independent retailers. With that in mind HPBA has launched its BBQ 365 campaign promoting year-round outdoor cooking.
“There have been great strides in grilling technology that make outdoor cooking not only feasible, but enjoyable in all four seasons,” says Jack Goldman, president and CEO, HPBA. “We want to let people know that they don’t have to throw the tarp over the grill and wheel it back into the garage on September 1.”
The trade group has created a variety of resources for retailers to download and use to help promote the concept. Materials, all found on the HPBA website (www.hpba.org), include the BBQ 365 Guide with consumer tips for better year-round grilling; the BBQ 365 Calendar loaded with fun, barbecue-related holidays and festivals to tie into all year; and BBQ 365 button graphics for staff to wear as conversation-starters with customers.
“We would like to change the North American griller’s mindset to view the grill as an extension of the kitchen; just one more tool in their arsenal, regardless of the calendar date,” adds Goldman.
Retailer Rob Woroniak, operations manager for Salter’s Fireplace, Patio & Grill in Eaglesville, Pennsylvania, says the key to his off-season sales is having a very strong presence year-round.
“Even if they’re not in the market for a grill when they come in for hearth products in the winter, they’ll remember we have a great selection and come back when they need one,” he says. During the winter months, he collaborates with landscapers who are specifying products for outdoor kitchen projects during this time, and he networks to build relationships with other area landscapers and design professionals. He also tries to keep customers engaged through Facebook year-round.
Dennis Lawrence, president of Taylor’s Hearth & Leisure in Glen Cove, New York, says, like Woroniak, most of his off-season sales are to contractors building outdoor kitchens.
“Our sales of freestanding grills do drop off, though,” he acknowledges, attributing the decline in part to a 50-percent reduction in floor space devoted to barbecue products during the winter. “Our store is only 2,500 sq. ft., so space is an issue,” he says. “We have to reduce the size of the barbecue display in the winter months to focus on hearth products.”
The one exception, according to Lawrence, has been the Big Green Egg. “These are serious barbecuers who cook and buy charcoal and accessories year-round,” he says, “so it sells pretty well in the off-season.” He has conducted demos on cooking the Thanksgiving turkey on the Egg that he says have been successful in spurring sales.
According to Sam Hays, owner of Sam’s NW BBQ Company in Sherwood, Oregon, the key to off-season sales is: “Don’t treat it like it’s the off-season.” He believes the off-season buyer is more serious and more likely to buy than kick the tires. Therefore, he keeps his inventory fully stocked and doesn’t reduce his hours of operation.
“When people come in they compare it to other stores that reduce or eliminate barbecue displays, and they know we are committed to the category and think of us as experts.”
Hays always has a grill fired up outside his store no matter the date on the calendar. Last November he hosted an open house that was attended by nearly 300 people, as well as vendors and local competition teams. The event, with free food and demos, kicked off a good fall season for the retailer, who says, “It lead to a super strong November and December last year. People came, stayed and talked about barbecuing and grilling and really enjoyed it. Customers are already asking about it for this year.”
Besides grills, smokers, pizza ovens and barbecue accessories have year-round appeal, as well. Grill-roasting racks for beef and pork roasts, rotisserie kits, jalapeno racks, chicken wing baskets, jerky-making racks, pizza-making supplies, Dutch ovens and other grilling gear are essential to preparing the heartier foods customers crave in cooler months. Cookbooks on smoking, plank-grilling, wood-fired cooking could be good off-season sellers as well.
“We used to just show grills,” says Woroniak, “but now we display a full line of accessories year-round, too. It gives the category more prominence in the store and has helped sales of both grills and accessories.”
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Using the festivals, events and holidays listed on the BBQ 365 Calendar for inspiration, we’ve developed some month-by-month ideas for promoting outdoor cooking throughout the fall, winter and spring. Why not give a few a try to see if it has an impact on your sales?
OCTOBER – October 1 is Worldwide Vegetarian Day and the start of Vegetarian Awareness Month. It’s also a time when farmer’s markets and backyard gardens are still ripe for the picking. According to the latest Weber GrillWatch survey, 30 percent of grill owners say they are grilling more vegetables today. Tap into this trend with in-store displays of baskets, racks, skewers and cookbooks dedicated to grilling vegetables. Vegetarian or meatless menu grilling classes are also timely this month.
NOVEMBER– With Thanksgiving taking center stage, November is the time to remind customers they can free up oven space by indirect-grilling, rotissing, smoking or frying the turkey. Host demos throughout the month showing all the ways to cook turkey on the grill, and just how easy it is. Display, front-and-center, related accessories including marinade injectors, rubs, smoking woods, instant-read thermometers and upright roasting racks.
Don’t forget the day-after-Thanksgiving hoopla by kicking off the holiday shopping season with your own Black Friday deals. Promote it all via your website, Facebook, Twitter and email marketing.
DECEMBER – Grills and outdoor cooking gadgets make great gifts. In fact, some retailers report a bump in sales near the end of the year attributable to holiday gift-giving. Place big red bows on the grills on your sales floor, and give special attention to pellet, kamado, charcoal and smoker grills that might be purchased as second grills. Hang stockings by the charcoal display - this kind of coal is welcome in any barbecuer’s stocking!
Other items on the wish list: digital instant-read thermometers, remote temperature-monitoring devices, cookbooks, sauces, wood chip variety packs, smoker boxes. Contact a gift-packaging supplier for boxes, bags, baskets, pails or other creative containers to create ready-to-go gifts.
JANUARY – New Year, New You. It’s a time for resolutions, diets and recommitting to getting healthy. The good news is the latest Weber GrillWatch survey shows 73 percent of respondents believe grilling is a way to eat healthier. Promote light, lean, and low-fat grilling in your store and in cooking classes by teaching customers how to use wood chips, pellets and planks to add flavor without calories or fat. Offer recipes for grilling lean meats and vegetables on your website and Facebook page.
FEBRUARY – Nearly one-third of all grill owners cook outdoors for the Super Bowl, according to HPBA – in fact, it’s one of the biggest grilling holidays of the year. Classes, demos and gear to barbecue or smoke ribs, brisket, pulled pork, wings, sausages, jalapeno poppers, sliders, chili and other game-day treats will be fan favorites.
Consider a contest for the best Super Bowl barbecue bragging rights. Have customers submit photos and menus of their spreads the week after the big game and award the winner a copy of Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe’s “NFL Gameday Cookbook.” Mardi Gras also falls in February and is a good excuse to promote grill pans, Dutch ovens, power burners and cooking classes for making jambalaya, gumbo and seafood boils.
MARCH – With National Pig Day on March 1, St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 and HPBExpo in between, there are lots of opportunities to celebrate grilling and spur sales this month. How about a special sale on rib racks and pork-pulling claws? Or a cooking class on preparing corned beef and cabbage on the grill or smoker? A display of the latest and greatest gear, gadgets and accessories from Expo on your sales floor? Why not all three?
APRIL – Spring cleaning is top-of-mind so it’s a great time to promote your store’s annual grill cleaning, maintenance and tune-up service. Don’t offer this service? Consider starting. Retailers who do say it often leads to grill sales. Run a sale on grill brushes and stainless-steel cleaner. Promote replacement parts, and build displays of the essentials – tool sets, barbecue mitts, perforated grill toppers and grilling baskets – to remind customers to replace last year’s grungy ones.
Off-season? Game on!