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Hearth & Home September 2014

Fonda andiron from Pilgrim Home & Hearth.

A Spark of Consumer Interest

By Bill Sendelback

Rugs are on a roll, glass doors and screens are doing well, as hearth accessories appear to be making a comeback.

Back in the day, hearth accessories such as glass doors, toolsets, wood baskets and much more represented substantial sales for most hearth dealers. Consumers were more interested in decorating their fireplaces, and given the dominance of wood burning at the time, most accessories were also practical and necessary.

Along came the rapid rise of gas fireplaces, matched by the equally speedy decline in sales of wood-burning products; the need for most hearth accessories just evaporated. Follow that up with a recession and a huge drop in new home construction, and hearth accessories were pushed to the rear of the store – and the minds of consumers.

Consumers no longer saw a need for many accessories, and most didn’t want to spend the extra money. Some hearth dealers also forgot about hearth accessories, not wanting to sour a too-infrequent big-ticket sale by suggesting accessories.

Fortunately the tide has changed for hearth accessories and most are making a slow sales comeback. With consumers beginning to spend again, hearth dealers are recognizing the bottom line value of the extra dollars that can be generated by sales of hearth accessories.

Danish Modern fire set from Minuteman International/ACHLA Designs.

The last 10 years have not been kind to most of the more prominent hearth accessories tracked by the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA). Glass doors, including masonry, zero-clearance and OEM units, were particularly hard hit over the past decade; they were down 75 percent due mainly to the plunge in new home construction and the corresponding decline in fireplace sales.

Surprisingly, freestanding screens were up 13 percent, toolsets were up three percent and grates up a whopping 344 percent.

In 2013, glass doors led a bit of a recovery by being down only 0.7 percent. Standing screens continued strong, up 15 percent over 2012, but toolsets were down 35 percent and grates were off almost five percent.

In the first quarter of 2014, glass doors were up eight percent, while toolsets continued on a downward trend with a decline of 35 percent, and grates were off almost five percent.

“We’ve been an accessory wholesaler from our beginning,” says Steve Hall, president of Fireside Distributors in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Accessory sales for us picked up quite a bit last year, with the improvement in consumer discretionary spending and the increase in fireplace sales.”

According to Hall, many consumers are now viewing their fireplaces and fireplace accessories as outdated and are looking for ways to update and transform them to more current decorating trends.

“Quality accessories are starting to separate themselves from cheaper stuff, particularly with specialty dealers,” he says. “As the customer becomes more discriminating, lower-priced accessories are losing ground.”

Item 6155 hearth rug from Sand Hill Wholesale.

But for Fireside Distributors, the unsung hero of hearth accessory sales has been hearth rugs. Hall says the sales growth has been “huge.” Hearth rugs have shown the greatest percentage increase in sales throughout Fireside’s accessory category for the last three or four years.

Hall also says that traditional styling and customized finishes are strong sellers in toolsets and on standing screens.

“Bronzes and the natural iron, handmade looks are the biggest sellers,” he says, “with more customers matching toolsets finished to the screens. And there has been some re-emergence of polished brass.”

“Hearth accessory sales are doing well for us,” according to Dave DeBolt, general manager of Sand Hill Wholesale & Mfg., Columbus, Ohio. “They are a big part of what we offer.” DeBolt also says that hearth rugs are a “standout” seller.

“There are a lot of sales opportunities in hearth accessories,” he says. “The consumer may brush them off, saying they don’t need them, but many accessories are needed for the proper operation, performance, maintenance and convenience of their hearth appliances. Some dealers do an excellent job of bundling and promoting accessories, but accessories are overlooked by many. A dealer needs variety and options for the consumer. If they don’t ask the consumer about accessories, they won’t get that extra sale.”

Accessory manufacturer and distributor Minuteman International is bucking published sales trends with screen sales down and toolset sales strong.

“Also for us, hearth glove sales are strong, steamers sell well, and we sell doorway fans by the thousands,” says marketing manager Randy West. Minuteman has added a new fireplace candelabra to its extensive line, plus new standing screens, andirons and toolsets in “more modern-looking” stainless-steel for its Danish Modern series. DeBolt admits grates are not an exciting item, but the company has expanded its grate line with mesh tops and ash pans.

Stoll Fireplace Equipment has always been known for its quality glass doors, but a few years ago the company started getting requests from its dealers for good, American-made accessories such as toolsets and freestanding screens.

“So three years ago, we ventured into simple toolsets,” says Gary Yoder, national sales manager. “Dealer reaction was phenomenal, so two years ago we expanded the line, and sales are way up. Our glass door sales are up about 12 percent, but overall company sales are up even more because of these accessories.” The company’s accessories have been so successful that Stoll is adding a 75,000 sq. ft. building especially to build accessories.

Stoll is not selling as much stock “cash and carry” products as in years prior; its market has moved more to custom items, including freestanding screens priced as high as $1,000. The company has added toolsets in the same powder-coated finishes as its glass doors. In order to offer less expensive, American-made accessories, the company is importing some raw parts and then finishing and assembling them in its Abbeville, South Carolina, factory. But its hand rubbed craftsman finishes offer more pricey custom accessories, too.

Carolina Premier steel mantel from Stoll Fireplace.

New from Stoll is its Modern Series including a frameless, 3/8-in. glass, freestanding screen with stainless-steel feet, and aluminum glass doors and matching toolsets with a “simpler, cleaner, more modern look.” The company’s new Carolina Premier steel mantel is “a home run” with dealers, says Yoder. Not quite contemporary, this clean and simple shelf mantel is powder coated in any of Stoll’s finishes, or black coated over a brushed finish.

Empire Distributing up in Arcade, New York, has seen its accessory sales grow “drastically” the last two years after an earlier four-year lull, according to Jeremy Rupp, Operations manager. “But sales are certainly not where they were 20 or 30 years ago.” Quality accessories are selling best for Empire; top sellers are hearth rugs, freestanding screens and steamers. The company’s glass door sales are holding steady, while toolset sales have declined.

“Dealers are starting to educate themselves for these add-on sales that add profit,” says Rupp. He laments, however, that manufacturers are bringing in accessories from overseas and cannot keep up with the demand. “It happened last year, and it’s happening again this year after our strong early-buy sales.”

“Hearth accessories are our only business,” says Doug Jenks, president of Pilgrim Home & Hearth. The company must know that business well since Jenks says it’s experiencing an average 10 percent annual sales growth. “We’re up 35 percent this year even after a good 2013,” he says.

Jenks expects that growth to continue. He says there are 47 million fireplaces in the U.S., most “needing aesthetic help with this focal point in a home. We’re always going to need aesthetic accessories,” he says, and most hearth accessories are used more for aesthetics than for utility.

Jenks agrees with others that hearth rugs are a hot accessory, and says Pilgrim’s models have been updated with a more contemporary appearance. Pilgrim also has enjoyed increased sales in freestanding screens and spark guards because of consumer concerns over hot glass on fireplaces and stoves.

“We’re even getting calls regarding screens from hospitality sources because of their liability insurance concerns,” he says.

New for Pilgrim are single-panel and tri-panel standing screens and four-piece toolsets in the company’s Newport Collection, four sizes of stainless-steel grates and six styles of contemporary andirons.

That’s right, andirons! Jenks sees a resurgence in demand for decorative andirons. He also claims to have an edge on aesthetic design because of Pilgrim’s working relationship with key OEM customers who research design trends out at least 24 months.

“Dealers can certainly be successful with accessories, but they have to stock deep and have a dedicated display area,” Jenks says. “In a 4 x 5 ft. area, you can show a lot of accessories. Don’t go cheap, and don’t be afraid to present more expensive accessories to your customers. In a small space, accessories are a high-margin extra sale.”

Michael McCue, president of Condar Co., agrees.

Hawthorne glass door from Portland Willamette.

“Brick-and-mortar dealers can’t sell accessories if they don’t merchandise them. Some do it very well and are successful. But many more do such a lousy job of merchandising accessories that it’s no surprise they don’t sell them.”

Portland Willamette (PW), another big dog in glass doors, is also seeing sales growth in standing screens as a result of the hot glass issue. PW’s toolset sales have declined, and its glass door business is flat but stable.

“Glass doors for us have recently been mostly custom items,” says general manager John Boire, “but we’re seeing a trend back to more stock doors.” To answer that trend, PW is offering lower priced stock doors with wider side-bars to fit a wider range of fireplace openings.

Yes, hearth accessories are making a comeback. Now it’s up to hearth dealers to once again take advantage of the high margin, extra sales these products offer.

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