152: An Outdoor Overview with NMG’s John Laing

Written by Rob Stott

January 24, 2023

John Laing outdoor appliances independent thinking podcast

PrimeTime in Orlando this past August saw one of the largest and most-impressive Outdoor experiences to date. Nationwide Marketing Group’s Director of Appliances and Outdoor John Laing, who led the charge to bring that space to life, reflects on the experience, details what attendees can expect at PrimeTime in Dallas (March 25-28), and provides other outdoor updates.


Rob Stott: All right. We are back on the Independent Thinking podcast. I always love starting the year with some fun conversations, and what better than we’re sitting here? I’m in the Philly Metro, so it’s like rainy and snowy, but what better time to think about the outdoors, right, Mr. Laing?

John Laing: Absolutely. Just that dream, that dream space.

Rob Stott: Oh, I love it. Mr. John Laing, our guru for the outdoor and appliances space here at Nationwide Marketing Group. Appreciate you jumping on and helping us kick off another year of podcasts here. Excited to have you back on and we’ve got a lot to dive into, so I’m excited to do it with you today.

John Laing: Great, me too.

Rob Stott: Awesome. We’re in the new year, but let’s look back real quick at 2022. What things stuck out to you about the past year that you were keeping an eye on, or how did the year end up for our dealers in the outdoor space?

John Laing: A year ago we were emphasizing with our dealers the importance of getting their preseason orders in because it’s going to be tough on inventory post 2021, and really felt that that was still true until frankly sometime in Q1, late Q1, early Q2, where we really started feeling the softness at retail. Inventories started building up at retailers, building up at the manufacturer and vendor level as well. It was challenging. It ended up being a challenging year, honestly. I think there’s no official stats on this industry, but as we look at sources like TraQline or NPD or HPBA … which is Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association’s feedback … and talking to vendors, it was in the 19 to 20% off range in 2022, so a tough year.

It really goes back to kind of a dichotomy of consumers, those that maybe wanted to buy something based on their wants, just to have a new widget in their outdoor space, versus a need. We’re going back to 2019 in many phases, and it is more based on needs versus wants for most purchasers. That economic uncertainty probably will remain a little bit. We’ll talk about 2023, but impacting that I think was just rising prices and economic uncertainty were the primary drivers. The discretionary buyer is limited to, I would say, the more luxury, premium and luxury buyer. We’re seeing that in appliances as well, but also in the outdoor space. Those that have money are still spending it. That’s the good news here as we go into 2023.

Rob Stott: Yeah. I mean, I’ve got to imagine, because it’s something we’re seeing. Your story isn’t unlike what other industries are facing. It extends beyond just the walls of a Nationwide retailer, but we’re comparing it to a really tough time too, aren’t we? Because spending was so high as consumers were … you think back to ’21 and even late 2020 when they were stuck at home, finding things to do and ways to spend money, and they were doing it on the areas that they wanted to improve the living at home. It’s crazy. You say returning to ’19, and I think that’s the message we were sharing. You think back to Orlando and how things were normalizing or resetting, if you will, to what the trend line was like prior to a pandemic taking over.

John Laing: Yeah. The good news, we had our buy fairs in Orlando, our PrimeTime event, and that went really well. The energy by the members still is there. They’re still getting foot traffic, but we’re back to where we have to go find that consumer now, versus them just walking in or calling up and saying, “I’d like to buy this.” Orlando was a really great event for us.

We were able to introduce three new brands to Nationwide members. Blackstone griddles, which is the number one griddle vendor partner in the business. Then secondly, we added our first high-end call it a pizza oven. I like to refer to them as outdoor ovens, because they cook a lot more than just pizza. Then another company, it’s U.S.-based with a U.S.-built product called Goldens’ Cast Iron, who makes some really cool product relative to kamado-style cooking as well as fire pits. New vendors, we’ve got some coming for ’23 as well when we talk about that.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well, I like how we’re splitting this, because we’re taking the first half to focus on ’22. You mentioned Orlando, and we’ll get to new vendors and what to expect coming up here in early ’23. To wrap up ’22, you mentioned Orlando in that outdoor space and the PrimeTime backyard. We say backyard. That was a massive backyard. I would love to have a backyard that big, with that much product in it.

You talk about the new vendors that were there. What was that overall experience like for you, to see just what that brought to the table at a show like PrimeTime and how it really brought not just the outdoor grills? We had furniture, we had electronics featured in there as well. To see that, what was it like for you, and what did you learn from that experience?

John Laing: The Gaylord Palm in Orlando is a fantastic facility for that venue, for us to be able to have an outdoor experience to show members that, while they don’t want to necessarily do it on that scale, it’s important to have demonstrations at their promotional events. We’re doing demonstrations at our buy fair. We had eight vendors out there cooking for two days, and they put a lot of energy and effort and time and money into cooking outside. That was a lot of fun, and what we learned I think is the importance, of that food is much better than hotel food, so we need to bulk up during the noon hour.

It’s a really cool experience, and as you said, a lot of differentiation and products between consumer electronics, furniture products, the different cooking products we have, outdoor comfort products. It just shows the breadth of opportunity for dealers to get into. For those that weren’t there, it was a great experience, and we hope to bring that to you when we talk to this group about PrimeTime 2023.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well, you mentioned the food, and before we get off of it, the heat. You talk about hot kitchens and not being able to stand the heat. I think I maybe even made that crack during our Facebook Live. A great plug there too. If you missed what the Orlando experience was like, our Facebook page, our Nationwide Marketing Group, has a phenomenal walkthrough of Mr. Laing walking us through the backyard and showing us what was on display there.

I mean, the food was incredible. The environment out there was incredible. It shows that you talk about the comfort products too, with how hot it was and being able to use the cooling fans and things like that to really make that space enjoyable. Really enjoyable just to see all of the different variety of brands, the variety of food they were bringing to the table. It was just a lot of fun.

John Laing: Yes. It was fun.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well, now talk about Dallas in ’23, back at a Gaylord property, and take some of those learnings. What do you hope to apply to this new experience as we get to Dallas in March here?

John Laing:As we look at this upcoming PrimeTime in Dallas, March 25th through the 28th, as well as subsequent ones, it really depends on the venue as to what we’re going to be able to do. At this juncture, this appears to be the last best opportunity we have to demo and have an outdoor experience for the next three shows, because of the locations we’ll be in and the time of year.

We’re really excited about Dallas. The Gaylord there has a decent place for us to demo right down from the show floor, one level of escalator, so we plan on demoing. We plan on having some outdoor vendors that aren’t cooking, but are showing their wares as well. We know that we’re going to have a great turnout in Dallas, because I think it’s a central location, number one … it’s not east or west … and number two, we have such great support from the Nationwide Southwest region that we anticipate they’re going to turn out in droves. We expect a lot of member companies there at that show.

Rob Stott: All I hope for is that the vendors bring enough food, because it is going to be hopping. We’re expecting a good show down there, and they’re going to be cooking. I don’t know if they have backup cooks they can bring with them, with outdoor expertise in that area.

John Laing: I guarantee you they will make it a great experience, and well worth a member’s time to come and spend some time with us.

Rob Stott: Yeah, and just the experience of being there and seeing the grills all fired up, and the smells. It gets all of your senses. It’s that retail experience, right? You’re showing how these products can be used if your store has the space to be able to do something like that, or you host an event where you can break these grills out and put them to use. It hits on what that experience could be like for the customer at your store to really show this category off. I mean, it’s memorable for us to be there and experience all that. I imagine for the members as well. Turn that around. Use it on your customers in your own local store. A lot to learn from that experience.

John Laing: Yeah. I’m still a proponent. There isn’t a product category that our members sell across all of our categories that touches as many senses as outdoor cooking does, assuming you’re able to actually cook outdoors and show them the product and have them smell it and taste it and see it, all the senses, even here.

Rob Stott: Yeah. Well, we know. We think back to August and I know to our own Independent Thinking magazine, and I know that the back half of the year, really before the start of the back half of the year, you were a big proponent of getting ready. That’s when you should be preparing your outdoor for the following year, is getting ahead on that. At a show like the upcoming one in Dallas, what’s the focus for outdoor at that time of year in March when the members are down there? What should they be looking at and thinking about as they approach the outdoor category?

John Laing: Well, I think vendor partners will be in a better position than they were in the spring of ’22. I can’t say that they’re going to have a bunch of inventory, but it is possible that they could still have some inventory laying around. Right now, if I’m a dealer, there’s a number of things I would do getting ready for the season, and we can go through those.

At this particular show, I think for those that are not in the business, it is the time to not just stick your toe in the water but commit to some relevant floor space, and commit to picking up some brands without a lot of necessary inventory behind it, because I think inventory levels will be little bit more protected this summer than they were last year. I think that’s an opportunity. For those that are in the space today, I’d just ask that they check out the vendors that we signed on in August that were semi-new to them, as well as the ones that we’re bringing on here in this month, in January.

Rob Stott: Yeah. We’ll get to that in a second because that’s a good segue, but I think it’s an important chance to reiterate that I know a lot for a lot of dealers, when they hear outdoors, the first thing that might come to mind is those grills, but what an experience, an opportunity, to see that it is more than just that. It’s a lot of outdoor comfort furniture. You mentioned the cooling and getting the experience and setting a good temperature, that sort of stuff. There’s a lot that goes into the outdoor space, the comfort products and things like that. Plenty of education opportunities as well, walking through that backyard space for sure.

You mentioned the new product, the new vendor partners. Any that you could share? We’re sitting here, this will publish in January, so the first of the year, we’ll have been here. What excites you looking ahead for what you’re doing in the outdoor space, and particularly around new brands that we’ll have available come March at PrimeTime?

John Laing: Well, as you know, we started a luxury appliance division at Nationwide a year and a half or so ago, and have been blessed with partnering with some key vendors in that space, in the luxury appliance space. We’re learning how to go after and seek and sell the luxury appliance consumer, who much in the same, is probably the luxury outdoor consumer as well. John O’Halloran and myself have teamed up to work on some of those initiatives, and one of the benefits is us talking to a vendor partner that is in both the luxury appliance business as well as outdoor.

We’re really pleased to be able to announce that we’ve signed a partnership with Middleby Residential, who owns a number of brands, has a focus both in retail residential-type cooking products, has a huge dominance in commercial cooking products, and the technology that they have there bleeds down into residential stuff. They’re bringing four brands of luxury appliances to Nationwide members and three brands of outdoor cooking products. Those will be Kamado Joe in the ceramic cooking, kamado-style cooking, which is number two in the business, Masterbuilt, which is number one in electric smokers, and then Lynx, which is the probably preferred brand in the luxury gas grill space.

The ironic part is Scott Grugel at Middleby and I have been talking for … oh, gosh … over four years about partnering, and the timing just wasn’t right. Somewhere along the way, we’ve figured out that ’23 is the right year to partner. Very excited to have them coming aboard, and look forward to the full launch here in January and the rollout.

Rob Stott: Yeah, for sure. What a great opportunity too, to get their feet under them. We’ve seen brands have success jumping right in. Maybe they sign in August and they’re at the show just a few weeks later. Awesome that they’ll be able to get themselves onboarded. Like you mentioned, a long history of talking to these folks.

John Laing: Well, we’ve got a pretty good base of business with them already. We’ve been able to share some numbers. The interesting part with Middleby Residential is they have one sales force that handles those brands. Someone that carries maybe Viking today but doesn’t carry Lynx grills will be able to pick those up much easier. Or somebody that’s in the indoor space only, pick up the outdoor brands. We’re anxious to leverage that organic growth and look also for new growth with Middleby Residential.

Rob Stott: For sure. Well, you I think alluded to or started to answer what I was going to ask next, and that’s what excites you about being able to bring these names in and give the members options. That’s what it does at the end of the day, is give them a really established name and brand to be able to go to, that has a bunch of different segments that they can touch, throughout whether it’s the luxury space but also the outdoor space that you mentioned. What are some of those things?

John Laing: My job and everyone’s job at Nationwide is to work on the member’s behalf, and to make sure that they’re happy and profitable and healthy moving forward. We vet every brand that comes to us or have a discussion of the ones that we’re chasing, make sure that things are right for the long term. Sometimes it takes four years for that to happen, but we want to make sure it’s right for the long haul. We’re excited about the diversification of brands and choices we have and what those opportunities offer our members.

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome. I’m excited to see them for sure at PrimeTime, and get up close with those brands and see what they cook. Because that’s what I … just taste everything. That’s the best advice I can give you, if you’re walking around the outdoor area. It’s just a phenomenal just experience.

Well, you mentioned the brands and what we’ve been focusing on going into ’23. What about the category as a whole? What are some of the things you’re keeping an eye on, just to bring this full circle and talk about the trends that you’re keeping an eye on in ’23, and where those opportunities exist for members that maybe they are seeing that a little bit of a softening, but what areas can they lean into and maybe make up some of that ground?

John Laing: I think I’d break it down in two pieces, guidance for our members and retailers, what they can do now and what they can plan for going further ahead in ’23, what they can expect from a business standpoint, but then also talk about some consumer trends and products and those kinds of things.

Relative to the member, what they can do today, I think we’re still seeing that luxury and premium buyer out there. Those that are confident economically are spending the money. They’re spending it on what is the fourth-most preferred space, third- and fourth-most preferred space in the home to renovate. Kitchen and bath still lead that area, but it’s followed very closely now by home office and outdoor.

Typically, built-in outdoor kitchen design and plans to execute in the spring are all done now. The best thing a dealer can do is make sure that they’re connected with landscapers, design architects, that whole design community, to make sure that they’re connected in so that they get that piece of whatever part of the business they’re in. If it’s consumer electronics, if it’s grills, whatever it is, outdoor furniture, et cetera.

Secondly, I would say planning your demos and promotions for the year. Usually these things come together last-minute, even though they’re re-upping on a promotion that they did the prior year. It’s really important this year I think, and right now, to talk to your vendor partners. If you’ve got something planned, get it on the calendar. Get their commitment for human capital help or maybe financial. If you don’t do that, the vendors are going to have a hard time in ’23 coming up with extras, so plan ahead. Talk to them.

I think next step is to make sure your website is up to speed, and that you’re activating all avenues of email retargeting and social to get those footsteps, because we are back to 2019. We’re looking for consumers. We’re making sure that they come to our store instead of going elsewhere. Then lastly, looking for additional revenue streams. That may happen more at PrimeTime, when you have a chance to actually physically see them.

We talked about things like related products and consumer electronics. Looking for new cooking products, whether they be griddles or pizza ovens, which we’ll talk about consumer trends here in a second. Consumables, like sauces, rubs, seasonings. Getting the consumer in the door for those are going to be important. If you’re not carrying those and have them in a sample station, you’re probably missing the boat.

Then comfort products is still a great category. Fire tables or flame tables, I’ll refer to them as, and fire pits. Two separate things, one wood, one gas. There’s lots of options out there. We’re working on a couple right now that we hope to bring to PrimeTime as well. Those would be some of the things I would do right now if I’m a dealer going into the season.

Rob Stott: The cool thing there too is it does come full circle, because we talked at the top about how we’re getting back to 2019 and what the market was like. Consumers aren’t just coming to you because they can. Now you have to go out and find them. It’s all about the marketing efforts and focusing on the areas of the business that we hadn’t been for a while, that maybe you got a little lax on, because business came a little easier as consumers were antsy to get out and spend. It’s just a nice way to sum up all those ideas that you’re mentioning as a way that, yeah, we’ve got to get back to work, got to get back to those basics that we’ve been hammering on.

John Laing: We do, we do. I think as we look at ’23 and the outlook for the business, before we talk about consumer trends, we anticipate it being off slightly again, single-digit, maybe a little bit more than that in units, but because of price increases, dollars should be held pretty well. It focuses on trying to upsell that consumer once they do come in, so you drive a better mix of brands and products.

Rob Stott: Yeah. No, that makes a lot of sense, and good to hear that outlook. I think it sets a nice level for these dealers as they look ahead to this year and what they can expect. You mentioned the exciting part’s the consumer side. What are the consumers looking at, and what are some of the things that our dealers need to think about on that side?

John Laing: I would say there’s no major technology breakthroughs most recently in outdoor cooking specifically. The Wi-Fi technology that’s all the rage in pellet cooking is still there. The technology keeps getting better signals and all that. As a technology, that’s here to stay in pellets for sure. Lynx grills, the one I mentioned earlier that’s coming aboard, is the only one that I’m aware of that has a gas grill that is Wi-Fi-based. I don’t think that’s been penetrated as well as it can. Adding Wi-Fi to a gas grill could be kind of fun as well.

Beyond that, really I would say induction cooking, that’s kind of the rage in the inside of the kitchen, is now starting to be introduced on the outside. Instead of having a side burner that’s a big gas burner, people are looking at induction as an option, and there’s going to be more offerings coming there. I would say that’s an inside technology that’s coming out as well.

Rob Stott: Awesome. Well, this is good to know too. I mentioned this will drop in January. As you’re listening to this it’s mid-January, but this sets the stage for me as I go to Vegas at the beginning of January to look at CES and see if there’s any [inaudible 00:23:38], because they show up there. They’re there. It’ll be cool to see what they have, and maybe we could do a little follow-up and see some of the crazy things they’re starting to introduce in this space. No, that’s a lot of good insight. Was there anything else that you wanted to throw out there?

John Laing: Well, I think just the importance of recognizing that ancillary categories, subcategories if you will, of ovens, outdoor ovens … call them pizza ovens … outdoor ovens and griddles, are still add-on product categories, that people that can afford a little bit extra and want something extra are spending money on. We want to make sure those consumers are coming to us, they’re not buying them on the web, and you have the offering there, and it doesn’t take up a lot of floor space to show those subcategories. It really makes you look more relevant, like you’re in the business. Definitely look hard at those, I would say.

The other thing that struck me is that consumers are looking for renovations, we talked about. They’re looking across categories. If you’re in the electronics business at all and not involved in outdoor TVs and audio/video to support this luxury spend, if you will, that’s going on, make sure you’re part of that.

Rob Stott: Yeah. I think it goes to that point too, that if you’ve been paying attention as a member and seeing the way the group has evolved and how retail has evolved, the whole home is the approach right now. Just because someone comes into your store and, if you happen to be across several categories, they may be looking at a TV, it doesn’t mean they aren’t looking at something else in another room that you could work with them with. You got them in the door. Use that opportunity, and leverage those relationships too.

I love that earlier you called out the fact of the designers and the landscapers, a great opportunity to get in and make those connections and find ways to leverage your expertise, become that expert for the customer or for that individual, that landscaper or that designer, so that they look at you as their go-to person in the space for the consumer.

John Laing: I still think there’s an untapped source, a free source, if you will, of new business in delivery/install teams that work for our dealers, and service technicians. They’re already in the home doing something else. Are they checking out the backyard or other spaces that the dealer is involved in to say, “Hey, it looks like you might be doing an outdoor project. Are you thinking about it? Can we get involved with you to see if we can make that plan happen?”

Rob Stott: I love that.

John Laing: Wanted to throw that out there.

Rob Stott: No, that’s a great point. Your ideas are percolating. I love this. This is why I love talking to you. This is good stuff. You’re already getting me thinking about the next podcast we do. No, Mr. Laing, this has been a lot of fun, and I know you’re busy. I look forward to seeing you in Dallas when we get there and everything, and taste testing all that food. Man, I can’t wait. I’m going to start my diet now.

John Laing: I think just in closing, we can’t emphasize enough from Nationwide’s team to look toward diversification of your business during tough times. This first half of ’23 is probably going to be a little bit tough still, and we’ll come out of that in later ’23 and into ’24 and be feeling much better, but protect yourself. Diversify your business, diversify your offerings. It’ll make you a lot healthier, and drive hopefully new footsteps and more often footsteps in your door. With that, look forward to seeing everyone at PrimeTime. Rob, thanks for the time today.

Rob Stott: Yeah, you bet. Great message to end on too. We appreciate it.

John Laing: All right.

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