A Conversation Starter

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An outdoor room isn’t just about the items in it – it’s also about the people who live in it. That’s why even though each of the elements of the outdoor room has to look good, they also have to serve a purpose.

The purpose of a fire pit is to facilitate conversation, and the once-wildly popular chiminea isn’t quite cutting it these days.

 “A fireplace is one dimensional – you can’t have a conversation,” says Clint Blevins of California Outdoor Concepts. “A fire pit allows for 360 degrees of casual conversation, so you have the availability to everyone at that communal area. It just works so much better.”

More and more people are having those conversations. According to a survey from the American Society of Landscape Architects, consumers had fire pits in their sights as one of the top additions to the outdoor room in 2007. And fire pit manufacturers say that trend will continue this year.

“Currently it’s our fastest growing category at Blue Rhino in the products division – at any one time we might have 40 active items,” says Bud Harris, general manager of the specialty division at Blue Rhino, a manufacturer of propane tanks and outdoor living products. “I attribute it to a few different things. First of all, the popularity of the whole outdoor room has been gaining momentum the last several years. With that I liken it to fireplaces indoors – it creates ambiance. The same is happening outdoors.

“It’s a place to gather around and socialize.”

A Wide Variety

Retailers looking to add fire pits to their outdoor accessory selection have a wide range from which to choose. There are products with several price points for all types of consumers.

California Outdoor Concepts specializes in high-end products that can convert to a new use depending on the situation. All of them have a granite table top on which food and drinks can be placed. The fire pit in the middle can be pulled out and replaced with a cooler full of ice within minutes. Some models also have a grill in the center. All can be converted into a solid granite patio table.

The company also features three different sizes: a chat table, which is shorter, a dining table that’s slightly taller and can have chairs pushed up to it and a bar table that’s taller.

The average price for a California Outdoor Concepts fire pit ranges from $2,000 to $2,500, and includes a one-year warranty. For retailers, the company offers a capped freight policy.

CobraCo National Sales Manager Mike Grosskopf says his company has new colors for its line of fire pits for 2008. It continues to carry the hand-hammered copper look, but has also added multicolored tiles, as well as browns and blacks for a more contemporary look.

The line made by CobraCo has price points from around $100 up to $250 and is priced for the masses.

Blue Rhino also specializes in quality fire pits that are affordable. Harris says his company took the popular drum fire pits from the Southwest featuring cowboys and other regional themes and turned them mainstream for the rest of the country.

They, too, feature granite tops with the fire enclosed in the center, as well as tile tops. The average price point is between $149 and $249. Though Blue Rhino does sell some models to big box stores like Target and Wal-Mart, some brands are reserved for specialty retailers.

The Selling Points

Still not convinced fire pits are the way to go? Consider these points:
    • They don’t rely on the seasons to sell. “The good thing about it is a lot of products – barbecue, patio and hearth – are so seasonally weighted, and fire pits aren’t,” says Blevins of California Outdoor Concepts. Though they are on the West Coast, they ship all over the country. “It’s nice for the retailer, it’s nice for the manufacturer – it’s nice for everybody.”

Grosskopf of CobraCo agrees. “Even with everyone screaming recession, the fire pits are still selling. It’s a year-round product, as well.”
    • They extend the amount of time customers can be outside, and unlike some other outdoor accents, they don’t just appeal to those on the West Coast or in the South. “I see it in all regions of the country – of course the Northeast and Midwest are the biggest for us,” says Harris of Blue Rhino. “That’s probably where the most acceptance has been.”
    • There is a wide variety of selection to offer your customers, from granite and tile tops to wrought iron and hammered copper.
    • Retailers have an opportunity for more sales because customers can buy more than one, depending on the size of the yard. Blevins says many of his end customers buy multiples of the same fire pits in different heights for different uses around the yard. 
    • They are inexpensive to operate for customers. They are fueled using either natural gas, liquid propane or good old-fashioned wood logs.

Jennifer Polanz is a freelance writer with Grasshopper Freelance. She can be eMailed at jepolanz@gmail.com.

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