121: What’s Hot in the Outdoor Category Right Now?

Written by Rob Stott

May 31, 2022

outdoor John Laing independent thinking podcast

There’s nothing like talking about the Outdoor category with John Laing, Nationwide Marketing Group’s director of appliances and outdoor. You learn something every single time, and his passion for all things outdoor entertainment is infectious. Mr. Laing jumps onto the podcast to share the trends he’s watching, talk about the PrimeTime Backyard experience in Orlando and more.

Just how passionate is John about the outdoor category — and grilling and cooking in particular? So much so that his family has endearingly nicknamed him Mr. Delicious. Want proof? 👇


Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking Podcast, and real excited today. I think the last time we talked, it might have been coming right out of KBIZ, so it’s been about three months or so, back in February. Mr. John Laing, our Director of Appliances & Outdoor, appreciate you jumping in and diving in here right at the start of what I have to imagine is a pretty busy time of year for the outdoor category.

John Laing: It is, Rob, but thanks for having me on. We’re right on the cusp of June here as this comes out and, most exciting time relative to retail activation. So, yeah it’s very exciting and I’m glad to be engaged with it.

Rob Stott: Yeah. It’s, uh… Well, uh, that’s kind of where I wanted to start off. You know, I, I know that, you think about some of the other categories that we talk about and represent here at Nationwide, and, they’ve got kind of those highs and, uh, you know… The, the roller coaster of a calendar when it comes to the importance of their category, this particular time of year. Is June sort of the Super Bowl month for outdoor, if you will, or, it might change depending on location, and weather in certain areas and things like that, but is there, like… Is this the month for outdoor?

John Laing: Yeah. June is, uh, the, certainly the most popular month. And I, I think, uh, book ending the two holidays of Father’s Day and, uh, 4th of July, um, that period is number one, uh, seasonality during the year. And then second is Black Friday, so there’s still, um, a lot of business that goes on outside of those periods, but that’s when the most activation occurs.

Rob Stott: Uh, now, I… Obviously, I know a big part of that of, of course, is grilling season. That’s what, you know, June is. I think June is, uh, grilling se-… One of them is barbecue season, one of them… Uh, barbecue month, and one of them’s grilling month, uh, June and July, so I know that, uh, that’s obviously a big part of it. But, you know, does it… Does it kind of trickle over into those other outdoor, uh, categories as well?

John Laing: Yes. Um, yeah, I think with all the changes that have gone on in the last couple years with, with COVID and, um, people, uh, lo-… Staying home more often, getting used to, uh, whether it be grilling more outside or just spending more time outside with outdoor furniture, uh, new outdoor furniture, adding, you know, consumer electronics, uh, outdoor TVs, and, uh, audio/video, uh, and certainly comfort products, um, have all been, uh, really exciting, I’ll call it outdoor subcategories, if you will. Um, and, and that’s gone really, really well.

Uh, but I will say that we’ve seen a little bit of a slowdown, as we have in some other categories, like appliances. Uh, there’s been a little bit of slowdown in grill sell through, uh, year-to-date, or at least during first quarter. Um, and I think, you know, the, uncertainty of the economy, um, and, uh, maybe a concern about discretionary, um, billing that they had, uh, with money, buying whatever they wanted. So, um, today, like in grills, um, about 60% of the business is done, uh, because product is under duress, it’s failed, and they need a new one. Uh, it’s the other 40 percent that, uh, you know, has slowed down a little bit.

Rob Stott: Well that- that’s an interesting number because I know… You think about, um, refrigeration, like… Or, or kitchen appliances, obviously the indoor appliances is… I… What… I, I almost imagine mostly under duress type purchases, someone having to replace something. Uh, it’s al- almost a 50/50 split in the, um… The outdoor space, it sounds like.

Which I… You know, you think about the category, it almost feels like that, sort of, like, I, I want a new grill, like, let’s go look at one. But actually, there are a f-… A large… A, a majority, it sounds like, that are those duress purchases.

John Laing: Yeah, it’s very similar to the appliance business, honestly. Um, so the appliance dealers can certainly relate, uh, to those comments. The interesting thing, I guess, with Father’s Day, you know, there’s some emotion (laughs) tied up in that, uh, just as there is with Mother’s Day, and trying to appreciate the females, uh, of the world.

Uh, father’s, you know, may get that discretionary purchase, uh, that they- they’d hoped for. And some of these discretionary purchases are for multiple grills, right? They may have a gas grill that’s working just fine, but they really want that pellet grill because they’ve been hearing so much about it, or they may go into another fuel type, like a kamado style, uh, lump charcoal cooking, uh, that they’ve heard about and want to try.

So, uh, just like my patio, (laughs), you know, I’ve got multiple grills out there and do different styles of foods, um, depending on what… You know, what I need to get done.

Rob Stott: Well, and, and that’s a, you know, an interesting thing, too, because I know you obviously track a lot of trends in this space, and the way things are going. And, um, I, I forget if it was this PrimeTime, or maybe some, some time in between, um, one of the, the, the thought leadership pieces you shared, there’s been a real shift in kind of the, the means of cooking, like, the, the type of cooking that, you know, has sort of taken popularity, uh, and kind of risen, as far as, you know, where people are looking to spend that money on a grill, and, uh, you know, the fuel types, and things like that.

So, what, what are you seeing that space, and what is sort of the… You know, is it gas, is the, the pellet? What- what’s really taken charge right now?

John Laing: Yeah, so, so gas still dominates, uh, the percentage of grills that are sold, it’s, um, in, uh, mid 50s range, 55% of the grills sold are in gas. Uh, what’s changed, uh, in 2022, for the first time in 100 years, charcoal, uh, will be, um, exceeded by pellets as a fuel source for grills, and that’s in terms of dollar sales.

So, there will be more pellets, 23%, uh, sold, uh, of the fuel market will be pellets, 22%, or slightly less, will be in charcoal. So, you know, there’s your 100%, basically, of, of fuel types that are being mostly used today. There is a small subset of electric style grills, um, that, you know, we can talk about a little bit separately, but that’s… Between the three, pellets has now moved into second place.

Rob Stott: Well, and that’s… I, I mean, it kind of brings up an interesting point. Not to… You know, I didn’t mean to plug them, but obviously we, you know… Last PrimeTime, we saw a new vendor in, in Vision Girls that he kind of combined those styles, right? So, uh, neat to see sort of, um, you know, the… All the different gas types kind of come together… Fuel types, rather, come together and, and be sort of in one grill, so you can kind of…

You know, as a… As a dealer, capitalize on the, the increase in popularity for, for charcoal, and, uh… But to, you know, to have someone that still, uh, maybe wants to have that gas experience, and, um, you know, the, the quickness of cooking, if you will, as opposed to, you know, the, the, the more experiential cooking that charcoal is.

John Laing: Yeah. Well, you know, you know, the lump charcoal business is different than, you know, just, um, charcoal briquettes-

Rob Stott: Yep.

John Laing: And that is a fuel type that a dealer should be stocking, um, just like pellets. If they’re selling pellet grills, they need to be stocking pellets. And we’ve talked about this many times before, but, um, you know, an appliance dealer sees that consumer every six, six or seven years. Um, if someone’s selling grills, mostly likely, they have the opportunity to see that customer once a month, if they want, to provide them sales of, I call it consumables.

Um, whether it be a fuel type like charcoal, lump charcoal, or pellets, or sp- spices, sauces, and rubs, those kind of things.

Rob Stott: Yeah, and I… Well, kind of a, a lofty question, but do you ever see a day where gas gets supplanted by another fuel type?

John Laing: I’ll never say never, Rob. (laughter) Um, you know?  If, um… If California takes over the United States, in terms of their rules and regulations, it’s very possible.

Rob Stott: (laughs) Understood.

John Laing: Someday, it’s gonna be electric.

Rob Stott: Yeah, understandable. Understandable. No, the… And, I mean, it just, it is a different type of cooking. I… You know, as someone that’s, uh, you know, has multiple types, uh, of grills in your backyard, you know, I know it’s, uh, kind of a personal preference type thing, but, you know, what- what’s it, for you, the, the different between the different…

Obviously, you know, the speed of cooking is one thing, but, you know, what, what attracts you to one type of fuel, you know, type of grill, as opposed to the other?

John Laing: Well, I… You know, I’m not too complicated. I do like to cook, and, and, uh, that kind of thing, but, you know, gas, it is the, the convenience speed, and, you know, you feel like you’re managing that temperature ’cause you can see the flame, and kind of feel the… Feel the heat.

Um, but it’s definitely speed for me in gas. Um, when it comes to, um, uh, convenience, and really, cooking a perfect product without putting a lot of effort in, that’s, that’s pellet cooking. When I want to do something, um, and cook it, and, and have a great smoke flavor but still, um, not have to baby sit it, um, you know, I use a pellet grill. Uh, ’cause the saying is, “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking.”

So, if you keep opening that lid, you’re not… You’re not cooking, so I don’t like to look, I like to do my own thing, and come back and find that it’s done. Now, for my romantic cooking, if you will, you know, romancing a food item, uh, it’s definitely a kamado style, like Vision Grills, um, has been a lot of fun. I mean, I’ve done some things on there that I typically, you know, would do in the oven, like Easter ham I did on the… On the Vision Grills, and it turned out fantastic, um, kind of thing, so…

Rob Stott: Wow, that’s awesome. You know, we, we know how much of an expert you are in this space, but to hear the, the, the romanticizing of food, and, uh, just to hear you talk like that is, is so cool, and, um, uh, obviously speaks to your knowledge in the space.

And, um, you know, but what about the, the… You know, you can kind of… The way you’re talking about it too, it, it sort of speaks to how a retailer can show the, the opportunity they have when they have these products in their stores, you know, that they can go and have an event, and kind of show the different types of, of grills that they might have in their stores, and, just the, uh… You know, what, what kind of oppor-… You know, experiential retailing opportunities exist because of this category?

John Laing: Yeah. I mean, the, the, the simplest approach is to, you know, make sure you work with a vendor partner, and get the nice pop up tent with their logo, and have, uh, food supplied items, easy to cook items, um, safe to cook, and, and have it sitting for awhile.

Uh, and do that during your promotions, um, especially this June, July period, it’s the best of year to be able to do that. You know, you’re, you’re touching all the senses, which there isn’t many products… There aren’t many products today that you touch all the senses. Uh, think of anything we sell, um, you know, it doesn’t really involve taste, or smell. So, you know, touching all the senses is really important.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Uh, and I know, too, you know, uh, it kind of makes me think about, um, the experience we had in Phoenix, and, and what went on with the, the PrimeTime backyard there. And, uh, you know, not that… We’ll, we’ll come back to some trends, but I want to give the… While we’re thinking about it, you know, the opportunity to talk about, um, you know, what you saw to that, and then looking ahead, too, in a couple months here. Couple weeks, almost, we could… We could start saying.

Uh, you know, we’re gonna be down in Orlando, and I know you’ve got some big things planned for down there, so talk about that, uh, you know, a little bit, what you’re, you’re looking to do with the backyard.

John Laing: Okay. Well, we’ll talk about that in just a second. I just thought of another example of experiential, uh, cooking, and that is, uh, cooking classes. So, our more progressive retailers, uh, give… You know, an example is Orsini’s, up in, uh, West Virginia, who is taking a, uh… Built a three stall garage, essentially, uh, building with roll up doors, installed cameras, and will have classes there teaching consumers how to cook on these various products.

And then, he’ll feed that to his social network, and Facebook, and others, to be able to ex- extend his brand name, and his expertise as a retailer, and giving that experiential cooking.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome, and a, a great example, uh, you know, of how you can kind of take that… Sort of that, that category and, and really blow it out into something that, you know, consumers can, um, come to the store, and, and, you know, it gives them another reason to, to be at the store, and, um, you know, experience.

Uh, we keep almost over-using the word, but it’s, it’s really, the best way to describe it, you know, that category and everything it has to offer, and then, um, kind of, you know, entices them to maybe, like, while they’re there, you know, almost impulse buy a grill,. (laughs) You know? Um, but-

John Laing: Yeah, it, it does happen. Um, so let’s talk about PrimeTime a little bit. If we look back at Phoenix in February, uh, we had a, uh… A good show. We had a fairly small space to be able to demonstrate, uh, and actually cook outside, uh, but it worked out great. The, the vendor partners were, uh, more than gracious in, in their participation.

Um, you know, they cooked for two days, made lots of sample foods. We provided some, uh, beverages along the way, whether it be water or adult type. (laughter) Um, you know, these, these vendors, um, really… You know, I have so many great comments, especially from a couple of first timers that were appreciative of our membership, and how they engaged with them, how, uh, interested they were in learning, and, um, interested in buying.

So, you know, it was a small but great, uh, effort, and what really excites me now is the opportunity where we’re what, some, um, 74 days away, I think, uh, from the, um, PrimeTime event, and, um, this particular venue at the Gaylord Palm in Orlando, we were there in, uh… Four years ago, in 2018, and took all of our outdoor vendors and moved them to the outside. Um, so they…

We had, I think, 8 or 9 little, uh, patios set up, each individual grill vendor cooking. Number of vendors under a 60 x 150 foot tent that included products, uh, whether it be grills, we had a spa company, we had outdoor power in, uh, mowers. We had outdoor furniture. Oh, in this show, we’re expecting all those again, plus, uh, we’ll be adding, uh, consumer electronics products with outdoor TVs from Furrion or Samsung.

So, uh, I’m very excited about the opportunity. Yes, it’s gonna be August, and it’s gonna be warm, but, um, you know, our vendors are very encouraged. They love to demonstrate their products, and I always just encourage our members to dress lightly as possible, (laughter) and, uh, we’ll have fans, and beverages, and music, and games, and make it a really fun, relaxing event for you.

Rob Stott: A great opportunity for those, uh, outdoor AC units to kind of… And cooling fans to show themselves off and see how well they actually work, right? (laughs)

John Laing: Yeah. They… Yeah, we have mi-… We have misting fans-

Rob Stott: Yeah.

John Laing: From SUNHEAT International, so would strongly suggest, um, we get a few of those, and maybe (laughter) the members, to sell a few of those this summer.

Rob Stott: (laughs) They might, uh, you know, uh, uh… Talk about impulse buy, I might be doing some of that right on the, uh… The… Well, the Outdoor Show in Orlando. No, but that’ll be, I mean, a lot of fun, uh, ’cause, uh, you think about just what it was like, uh, the, the patio in Phoenix, and everything that was set up there, just… Uh, you know, just a couple of, of grill vendors, and, and obviously, some furniture was out there as well, and, and being able to kind of lounge, and, um, get the, the… That, that experience we were talking about a retail store, right?

You know, having an event, and being able to cook on those grills, and share some food, and, um, just see what… You know, what, what is possible with those products, so to, to kind of see that on steroids, if you will, down there in Orlando. I know we’re all excited about it, and, um, you’ve got some, some really fun things planned that we’re, we’re looking forward to, uh, taking part in again.

And, uh, maybe a little… You know, little, little preview here, but we- we’re doing some live, live streaming from this show coming up, so we’ll maybe be walking around that area-

John Laing: Right.

Rob Stott: And live taste testing some food and giving some on the spot reactions. (laughs) So, we’ll have some fun down there.

John Laing: Yeah. Yeah, we, we, we- we’ve coined, uh, this event now, Outdoor Back-… Uh, PrimeTime Backyard. Um, and, you know, you think about the places that you typically are the most relaxed, and unless you’re mowing your yard or doing some yard work, (laughter) it is the backyard, right?

You’re hanging out and just relaxing, uh, with family, or even, uh, individually. Um, and I think, you know, that translates to, uh, a really welcoming environment, uh, whether it be at the store location, or we’re doing it at PrimeTime, that’s the reason selling outdoor products, especially grills, is the… One of the most fun products you can have to sell, uh, because the consumer’s not as, um… I guess, uptight, they’re not as much under duress. Even if they’re buying a product that’s failed, they’re excited about getting something new, uh, that they’ve done reviews on, or done research on.

So, um, we think this PrimeTime will be our best ever, uh, and we’ll be able to show the members, um, you know, what some of the things they can take back to their store.

Rob Stott: Yeah, that’s such good points you mentioned there. And, um, I know too, you know, obviously you mentioned the, uh, grilling, and, and the grills are such a big part of this, but, um, the way it’s expanding… And you hit on it at the top two, I want to give you a chance to dive a little bit deeper. Um, you know, some of those, those kind of related verticals, the adjacent outdoor verticals, if you will, that have kind of come onto the scene that allow you to have such a, you know, a, a bet-…

A bigger, and more inclusive outdoor experience at this show, and that’s that, you know, the TVs you mentioned, and obviously, outdoor furniture has had a, a, a big push here too, and some of the other, um, you know, categories as well. What are… Trends wise, what are you seeing in those spaces? And obviously we’ll get a chance to see some of the- these trends on display in Orlando, but what are some of the areas that, you know, retailers have ki-… Maybe some opportunities that they didn’t over the last couple years, or, um, you know, categories that are kind of coming to the forefront that maybe you didn’t expect to, uh, you know, over the last couple of years?

John Laing: Well, there are some trends going on in cooking that, you know, I touched on, I made in a recent blog, and I don’t necessarily need to go into depth on those, but ancillary items in cooking, like pizza ovens, are extremely hot right now. Um, things like, um, induction a- and on, uh, cook tops, small cook tops outside are, are coming on, and those kinds of products that, you know, make it, um, a, a different cooking experience.

But as I look at the other verticals, probably the hottest I would say, uh, no pun intended, is, uh, outdoor fire tables, uh, fire pits, um, is an area I, I just don’t understand why more of our retailers aren’t engaged in that, um, ’cause it’s a fairly simple product, doesn’t take up a lot of floor space, it’s easily added by furniture dealers that are probably already selling some outdoor furniture.

Um, and so, I think there’s opportunity there, and, you know, we continue to look for vendor partners that, uh, can help us expand in that vertical. Um, I’d point out… I’d be remiss if I didn’t point our RSP, uh, is a… Uh, fairly recent signing last Au-… July or August, I believe. RSP carries outdoor furniture, and they’ve recently just added, uh, an, um, pretty significant line up of fire tables, all, all propane gas driven, um, or gas driven.

And, uh, very excited about having them come to the show, and hopefully be out there under the tent selling their products, and, um, showing the way on outdoor comfort. Um, outdoor TVs, I think that’s one of those anc-… Uh, ancillary categories that, um, if you have discretionary income still, and you’re not worried about, uh, the economy, those products are hot, and people are making that part of their entire outdoor living environment.

Um, it’s kind of like, I guess, built in kitchens for outdoor. Um, I believe the study was about 10% of the consumers, uh, a year ago said that they were interested in doing a built in kitchen. That number’s actually risen in the most recent study. It said almost a third of them-

Rob Stott: Wow.

John Laing: Would like to have an outdoor built in kitchen. Now, will they actually spend the money for it? I don’t know. That’s, that’s yet to be told, but if they’re, they’re interested there, the desire’s there, and with that, goes the big things, like a T-… Outdoor TV, uh, as an add on, because that’s really, your entertainment area.

Rob Stott: Yeah, and it’s just crazy to kind of see. O- obviously, the pandemic has had a- an impact in many ways, and we know that, you know, expansion of spending to the outdoor space, and enhancing that outdoor, um, you know, living… Uh, you know, taking the living room, essentially outdoors, um, along with the kitchen, you know, is something that, that was a, a big deal, and a big push, and kind of crazy to see just how quickly it’s taken hold, and, um, the ways that, you know, all these companies are, you know, de-… Either developing product, or finding ways to get their, their things to be outdoor ready.

Uh, you know, from the TVs to the audio experiences. Obviously landscape audio kind of comes along with the, you know… Having a TV outside, and making sure… You think the home theaters, and how they’re set up with four walls. You take those walls away, audio can kind of go everywhere, so having speakers that are built for that. And o- obviously, the kitchen as well, the outdoor kitchen, so, so a whole new world out there, um, which is awesome to see-

John Laing: Yes, it is.

Rob Stott: And no pun intended there, because that’s a Disney quote and we’re going to Orlando, so I didn’t… (laughter) No copyright, uh, infringements here. (laughs)

John Laing: Yeah, there you go.

Rob Stott: No, but Mr. Laing, this was a, a lot of fun to, you know, chalk it up, and, and chum it up with you on, uh, the outdoor space, and everything-

John Laing: Yeah, yeah.

Rob Stott: We have coming. So, um, you know-

John Laing: Well, I will say, uh, you know, I am glad that, um, we kind of have COVID behind us, um, that, uh, supply chains are starting to get better. Um, just a couple last points here, I would say, you know, get ready for… If you’re in the, uh, grilling… Selling grills, get ready for preseason. Um, it’s gonna be more important than ever to plan your 2023 now. Uh, big box is already ordering their product for next year, and I would strongly encourage you to start asking vendor partners when their program’s coming, because we do anticipate some of our vendors coming in July and August with those programs, and how important it is to place orders now.

And frankly, that’s not just in grills, that’s in… Like, outdoor power equipment’s gonna be extremely important as well. But, um, the other thing I was gonna mention, I think, was I’m glad it’s kind of behind us because more vendors are interested in talking to us now, uh, because they’re getting their act together on supply chain, versus the last two years, they didn’t have enough product to even talk to us.

So, you know, I can honestly tell you, I have… I just did this calculation, Rob. I have, um, 14 outdoor vendor prospects-

Rob Stott: Wow.

John Laing: And they manage some 25 brands, uh, and most of them are not overlap, they’re different and new to our membership, and I don’t know how many I’ll be able to close. I’m hoping to close one or two here definitely for PrimeTime. Uh, I’m very excited about that, but we are working hard on the… On the members we have to try to find, you know, new products within the vertical that they’re dealing with, and certainly, new verticals, uh, outside of that, uh, to help their business.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Just more reason to be excited about this space, more reason to be excited about, you know, coming to PrimeTime and seeing some of these, uh, you know, hopefully some of these prospects that you’re talking about, and talking to.

And, um, just more reason to be excited about the category, ’cause, uh, just, uh, growth abounds in this space, and it’s awesome to see, and I know we’ve got the, the perfect guy at the helm to… Uh, you know, that knows all about it, and is, uh, clearly so very excited about it, too, so it, it, it- it’s infectious, you know, to, to kind of talk to you-

John Laing: Yes.

Rob Stott: And, and see this space, and where your, your head’s at, and where our member’s heads should be at. So, uh, Mr. Laing, we appreciate it, and look forward to seeing you down there in Orlando before we know it.

John Laing: Yes. All right, thank you Rob, and, uh, I hope everyone has a great, uh, June.

Rob Stott: You too, sir.

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