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Don Johnson Shares Information about Grilling and Barbecue for 2009
Interview with Director of Market Research for Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association

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Don Johnson, Director of Market Research at Hearth, Patio, Barbecue Association (HPBA), and I had a great conversation about grilling for 2009. I always enjoy talking with folks involved in the barbecue industry, and this was the first time I’d had a chance to chat with someone who works directly with numbers and statistics for the industry.

Grilling Still Sizzles with Americans

The economy may go up and down, but grill ownership stays pretty stable. Don said the general range is that 72% to 77% of households own a grill.

This year looks strong, and that may be because more Americans are vacationing at home rather than paying for expensive trips. For cash strapped families who are concerned about jobs and making mortgage payments, a home grill can make the yearly week off special at a very reasonable price.

Cooking at home saves on the budget too, and, face it, it’s simply more fun to fire up the grill than it is to heat up the kitchen especially during the summer months. That’s a savings on the air conditioning bill as well.

I can whip up a grill feast here at my house for under $20 while a comparable meal out runs $60 or more in this area.

Who’s Doing All the Grilling? 

Grill ownership goes up for families. For instance, 85% of families own grills (in contrast to a single person living alone). And, bigger families (4 or more in the household) are even more likely to own a grill at 89%.

In terms of demographics, grilling is popular across categories.

But, the Hispanic population is showing growth in terms of grilling with a heavy interest in charcoal grilling and also year-round grilling. Researchers think this reflects the family-centered focus for Hispanic families and a general interest in outdoor activities.

Another group showing an increased interest in grilling is females. Although men still are more likely to man the grill, women are taking up the tongs around 1/3 of the time on the outdoor meals. Interestingly, men are still more likely to light the gas grill or start the charcoal. I informally asked some female buddies about that and several confirmed safety concerns in terms of getting grill fires started.

How We’re Starting Our Fires

Always curious, I asked Don about fire starting. That relates mainly to charcoal, of course, although easy-start push buttons on gas grills are appealing to customers. For those who do grill or smoke over charcoal, the break down is as follows:

47% lighter fluid
17% instant light charcoal
13% chimney starter.

So, clearly, Americans are willing to pay for easier charcoal lighting, since the instant light charcoal runs around $15 for 20 pounds while regular briquets check in at $7 per 20 pounds.

What Are We Grilling On?

Gas tops the list on grill purchases followed by charcoal. Electric remains steady and likely will continue to go up with fire codes banning open fires in many areas and with more and better units being marketed.

When shopping, 80% of consumers go buy a grill at mass merchants or big box stores. In other words, we go to Lowe’s, Home Deport, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Sears and so on.

Don said that generally shoppers want the best price and as many “bells and whistles” as possible. This can, of course, be a challenge for manufacturers. “It’s hard to compete without some flash,” says Don.

Some specialty grills that are showing a recent spurt in sales are infrared, ceramic, and pellet grills. These seem to be selling by “word-of-mouth” more than with traditional advertising. And, some of the mass merchants are starting to add some of the newer types of grills/cookers.  

And, tailgate grills are taking off in “leaps and bounds,” says Don. He notes that football games are the most popular for tailgate events followed by baseball and then concerts and NASCAR. He did point out that there are fewer NASCAR events, so there may be huge numbers of grillers for a big race, but there are more football games scattered all across the nation and weekend after weekend.

How Do Grill Sales Stay So Steady When So Many Own Grills?

It might appear that the grill market would be saturated, but there are a number of reasons grills continue to sell well year after year.

One key point is that the average lifespan of a charcoal grill is 3.4 years and 3.5 years for a gas grill. Don did note that these number include single use and throwaway grills, so a home grill will likely last a little longer.

As a grill owner with quite a few of my own, I’d say that taking good care of a grill can make a big difference on the lifespan. On the flip side, I do have relatives who would rather buy a new grill every few years and get the latest features.

Also, families may “outgrow” grills. I know we upgraded from an 18 inch Weber Kettle to a 22 inch and then bought a smoker (a growing trend with about 10% of families now owning smokers).

A family cooking on a charcoal grill may decide to invest in a gas grill which is more convenient. My Dad did that once, but he went back to charcoal, because he preferred the taste. Other families work out better with a gas model.

So, if you’re looking for a grill, you’re in good company and may have a number of reasons for wanting to put your entertainment dollars into a grill, smoker, outdoor cooker, tailgater or all of the above.


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