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Sizzling out? As peak barbecue season begins, fewer Americans are buying grills

CNN  —  To BBQ or not to BBQ? That is one question on Americans’ minds heading toward July 4 as grills are not as hot of an item as they once were. The grill business saw a massive pandemic-era buying binge, but is now facing consumers worried about inflated meat prices, high interest rates and uncertainty. Many feel no need to upgrade fairly recent purchases. Market leaders like higher-end grill manufacturer Traeger, once a pandemic darling, reported its latest quarter’s grill sales at $76.8 million — a plunge from the $156.1 million the company raked in during the second quarter of 2021. Best-selling outdoor cooker brand Weber has also seen unit shares decline since 2020, according to data from Traqline. (Weber did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.) Retailer Home Depot also reported pressure in big-ticket patio and garden equipment, including grills, during its first quarter earnings call in May as the company reported overall dips in sales and earnings. And it’s not just the big brands. Local stores that sell grills and other backyard cooking gear similarly reported demand slacking off. “It’s trending down,” said Brian Bushfield, general manager at West Coast BBQ Shop in San Diego, California. He noted a sluggish start to June and a slow Memorial Day, despite the holiday being one of the most popular occasions to purchase new grills. So, what’s going on? Lockdown was a grill (seller)’s best friend It’s not a result of Americans cooking outside on grills less. At least, that’s according to statistics from the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association that reported 80% of U.S. homeowners owned a grill or smoker in 2023 — up from 64% in 2019. Of the new grill owners surveyed, 27% cited cooking more at home during Covid as the reason for their purchase. Roy Morchian, owner of American Royal Hardware in Montclair, New Jersey, says grill sales have returned to pre-pandemic levels at the local True Value franchise. Paul Glader/CNN Home Depot Senior Merchant of Grills Joe Downey said it isn’t just cookers that make up the retailer’s grill category. Consumables like charcoal pellets and propane tanks drive a large portion of sales, which he says are powered by new customers who purchased grills during the pandemic returning frequently to buy fuel. “More cooks are cooking at home than ever before,” he said. Roy Morchian, owner of American Royal Hardware in Montclair, New Jersey, told CNN that he saw a bump in the number of grills sold during the pandemic – around 160 grills sold in 2020 compared to the store’s yearly average range of 80 to 120 grills. And while their sales “have come back to normal” now closer to pre-pandemic levels, he notices new faces have joined familiar ones when purchasing propane tanks to fuel the Weber grills they stock. Most grill makers and retailers seem to agree that the pandemic pulled forward demand for grills and other long-lasting home equipment as people searched for ways to fill their days and entertain their families at home. American Royal Hardware in Montclair, NJ, staff say they place barbecue grills on the sidewalk outside their store as a way to market the grills to motorists and pedestrians passing by at a busy town center. Paul Glader/CNN San Diego Grill Pros owner Jessica Hernandez recounted “astronomical” sales numbers and dubbed 2020 their “unicorn year.” Corey Martin, VP of Marketing at Texas Star Grill Shop described droves of people flocking to their Houston branch to buy grills and shelling out thousands of dollars for higher-end models like Weber’s Genesis, which retails between $800 and $1,800, and Traeger’s Timberline, which starts at about $3,000. “It was like a really busy grocery store,” he said of his shop. But he and his staff knew that 2020 might be an aberration and the windfall might not last. “It would be stupid to be in a grill business and think that Covid was the new normal,” Martin said. He said retailers who sell grills know it’s a slow growth and seasonal industry. Downey sees Home Depot’s grill sales stabilizing now following the lockdown-driven high. He anticipates that pandemic-purchased grills will reach the end of their life cycle and bring returning buyers with them in 2025. “The bottom has been reached and we are on the upswing in terms of getting closer to the end of [the grill] life cycle,” he said. A key issue is a grill’s life cycle: an average grill could last about five years and Americans purchased more than 21 million grills and smokers in 2020. When you do the math, it’s clear that the replacement phase still hasn’t kicked in quite yet. Reigniting the market Meanwhile, grill sellers are looking for ways to stoke demand. Beyond running familiar summer promotions for popular grilling days like Memorial Day and Father’s Day, Downey said that Home Depot is trying to encourage young first-time homeowners to buy grills by introducing them to well-known brands at lower price points. Weber Grills are offered for sale at a home improvement store on July 23, 2021 in Palatine, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images Downey said somebody purchasing a $99 Weber kettle later might look to buy the compact Weber Spirit. “Then as they grow, maybe they’ll aspire to get into the Weber Genesis,” he said, referencing the brand’s more expensive model. Ace Hardware is running advertisements promoting its longstanding free assembly and delivery on grills –- from brands such as Big Green Egg, Blackstone, Weber and Traeger – priced $399 and up, for Ace Rewards members, which is a free program to join. Traeger CEO Jeremy Andrus told CNN of the soft demand period “We are not waiting for this to end and riding it out.” He pointed to Traeger hosting weekend cooking demonstrations outside of retail stores like Home Depot and Ace Hardware. “If we have an opportunity to get in front of the consumer and not only explain what a Traeger does but give them an opportunity to taste the food cooked off of a Traeger, it’s a very effective conversion tool,” he said. Traeger Grills holds demos and activations at Home Depot, Ace Hardware, and specialty retailers across the country. Courtesy Traeger Grills But even with efforts in marketing, discounting and other special offers, firing up demand in a traditionally slow-growth industry is a challenge, according to Simeon Siegel, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets who follows Traeger. “If someone has a barbecue, they’re not going to buy another simply because it’s on sale,” he said. “At the end of the day, if someone doesn’t need to buy a grill, there’s only so many things companies can do to create demand.” And economic trends haven’t helped. Price data from the US Department of Agriculture showed prices of many foods, including beef, rose in 2022 and 2023. “Beef and veal prices have risen the fastest of all categories” in 2024 the USDA said in May. It expects beef and veal prices to rise another 4% this year. And some consumers are abandoning meat entirely. A year and a half ago, Bloomfield, New Jersey, resident Shikhiu Ing traded grilled meat for greens as a part of a conscious health decision. While he describes firing up his grill three times a week during the pandemic, he now finds less use for it after going mostly vegetarian. “It’s non-functional right now. Grilling vegetables is kind of a chore to be honest,” he said. “It’s just faster in the air fryer. Throw some broccoli in there, air fry. You got vegetables.” Shikhiu Ing is a frequent customer of American Royal Hardware in Montclair, NJ. He says he bought a grill during the Coronavirus Pandemic but hasn’t been using it as much since he became a vegetarian. Paul Glader/CNN Hot grill summers are here to stay? The grill industry isn’t a stranger to slumps or about-face shifts in consumer demand. Andrus pointed to grill sales declining in the years following the 2008 recession before returning to growth for the next 10 years as a testament to the industry’s resiliency. “Americans love to cook outdoors,” he said. “They always have, they always will.” For Newark, New Jersey, native Ayla Dunkley, cooking outdoors has been a family tradition. “I learned how to grill from my grandfather and my father, so I learned everything from them,” she said. Following her grandfather’s advice, Dunkley replaces her Blackstone cooker every three to five years and waits until the summer season is over to shop at lower prices. Fourth of July cookouts will cost $71.22 on average for 10 guests this summer, according to data from the American Farm Bureau Federation. That’s up 5% from last year and up 30% from 2019. Yet Dunkley’s annual plans to celebrate the holiday with her family in Pennsylvania are still on, grill in tow.