It's that time of year again; time to take a look at what's new, what's no more and where the outdoor cooking industry is headed. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA), 2006 was the best year ever with over 17 million grills and smokers sold in the United States and Canada. There are a couple of big, driving trends this year which have shaped the industry. While the dramatic growth in sales (about 15%) is big news, reading through the numbers you see that charcoal grill sales saw the biggest growth (up 19%). Weber's GrillWatch survey confirms this trend. Weber is reporting that sales of their charcoal grills are up 7% in the last 18 months. While people are finding the benefits of charcoal, the biggest area of growth is in the two (or more) grill home.
Of course, for manufacturers the consistent growth of imported grills is the big story. With many manufacturers (even Weber) importing some or their products from China and the continued reliance of major retailers on imports, the decline of North American made grills and smokers continues. This is putting a lot more units on the floors and at a much wider price range. Interestingly enough, despite all the newer, bigger grills out there, the average grill sale price has remained unchanged for 2006 at around $240USD. Stiff competition will try to capture people's attention this year with new features, particularly the new must have; the infrared burner. The continued decline in quality on the lowest end grills is forcing people to buy new grills much more frequently (by nearly a year over the last five years). This means fewer cookouts for the dollar and part of the reason for a return to charcoal.
The New Weber?There are loads of new models and brands out there this year. Weber has completely reinvented all of its lines of gas grill and reintroduced the Weber Spirit at a much lower price than any Weber gas grill in years. These new grills, while still very high in quality but use less metal. The Spirit line is now made in China, as are those of Weber's subsidiary, Ducane. Weber keep the wonderful Ducane grills unchanged for two years, but has now completely replaced every model. You will now see Ducane Affinity and Meridian grills on the markets. These grills sell at a low price and are priced to compete with other mass market imported grills. Add to this a deal with Ace Hardware and we just might see some serious growth out of Ducane this year. Of course this begs the question of why. Why has Weber made so many changes all at once? Some will tell you it is a strategic reinvention of the company; others will tell you it is a last gasp of desperation. I won't say what I think yet.
Char-broil/TECThe other big story of the year turned out to be more hype than product. Two years ago Char-Broil announced a deal with TEC to produce, what would have been at the time the first practical infrared grills under $1,000USD. Of course in the mean time nearly everyone took advantage of the end of TEC's patent on the infrared technology to introduce their own infrared gas grills. MHP introduced its infrared gas grill under $1,000USD beating Char-Broil by more than a year. Of course by this time, TEC had revealed its new glass capped infrared technology, the same technology that Char-Broil licensed. This, then gives us the much hyped Char-Broil/TEC gas grills, available exclusively through Lowe's Home Improvement stores.
Why more hype than grill? Despite the innovative technology, this is an okay grill. The 304 stainless steel is nice, but the construction is lightweight and a little flimsy. And for all the advertising and promises the truth is, TEC licensed this technology to Char-Broil. They didn't build the burners, do not provide support and have left it to Char-Broil to actually make sure it works correctly. TEC sees this as a marketing deal to help them build the idea that this new technology is the better infrared burner. They hope that this will help them come back from near failure by convincing people that theirs is the only way to go. Unfortunately the new infrared burner has its draw back, chief of which is the ten minute preheat time. The older infrared technology can get you cooking in as little as two minutes. And then there are all the questions of durability. How long will that ceramic glass survive extremes of hot and cold and all the abuses that the modern grill puts into their grills (wood chips, marinades, bastes, etc).
Stainless Steel: Stainless steel continues to be the biggest marketing gimmick in gas grills these days. In fact you are seeing more and more stainless steel smokers and charcoal grills too. Only problem is that prices for hot rolled stainless steel recently hit $700USD a ton (up from $200USD five years ago). Prices are fluctuating wildly and many gas grill manufacturers are being forced to find new ways to get their models in at the magic price points set by retailers. Sureheat has been providing grills to Costco under the Sonoma name for several years. This year the main grill in that line will be build predominately from enameled sheet steel, not stainless steel. Should prices continue to remain high in the stainless steel market you could see some serious damage to those companies who have invested so much into making all these low price stainless steel units. I don't see a decline in demand for stainless steel, so I don't see much hope for many of these companies.
While some grills are loosing their high quality stainless steel shells, others are finding more and more low quality stainless steel pieces covering them. 400 series stainless steel, which will rust and loose its appearance relatively quickly, is taking the place of the much more expensive 304 stainless steel. If you find yourself shopping for a grill these days you need to carry a magnet in your pocket. A magnet will not stick to good quality stainless steel. It will, however stick to low quality. Some manufacturers are finding it very easy to fool consumers by putting 304 stainless steel hoods onto 400 series stainless steel grills.