From the source: Michael McDonald, Weber Australia

Experience is the name of the game in retail these days and Weber has invested in its in-store activity, aimed at educating and entertaining the customer. Here we talk to managing director Michael McDonald about the sensory and emotional aspects of retail and the growth of the business.

Inside Retail Weekly: How would you describe the past year at Weber?

Michael McDonald: The past year has been somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of barbecue in general. Some of the market data says that in the last 12 months, it’s been challenging and the market has shrunk. We’ve come through that by gaining considerable share in some areas, especially through the store network. We’ve been pleased with the growth we’ve achieved through the Weber stores and the experienced-based retail strategy we’re pursuing.

IRW: Can you tell me about the strategy behind the Weber in-store experience?

MM: We’ve got a partnership retail model. We work closely with independent retail partners to develop what I think of as an experiential Weber retail environment. We’re focused on working to create hands-on experiences – cooking in-store, testing the flavours and the emotional aspects of barbecuing.

We started with our first trial pilot store in 2015 and since then, we’ve grown that network with a range of independent partners to 26 stores today. We’ve been pleased with how that’s performing especially in this tough environment, where things have been tough in the broader world. Our stores are growing in the network and on

a like-for-like basis. It tells us something we’re doing is resonating with customers.

IRW: If you could describe the ideal Weber customer store experience, what would that look like?

MM: We like to think you’d be greeted by people who are passionate about Weber. One of the key things we focus on when finding partnerships are people who are committed to the same values, such as creating positivity for the customer. We’ve always had a focus on the product, the food, memories and moments you can create. In a Weber store, we can give you a sensory experience. In an ideal world, you’d walk into a store, you’d find something cooking on a barbecue, and friendly, enthusiastic staff who want to share their passion for Weber. And they would get you using a barbecue, so you can see what it’s like and discover what you can create.

Over a number of years, we’ve traditionally done storefront demonstrations, showing people how the barbecues work in a traditional sales sense. What we like about the new concept is all the stores have an indoor working kitchen, so year round, we can do demonstrations. But barbecues are part of the selling process, so we can talk about your needs and find out what you are looking for. We can show you how the barbecue delivers during the sales process. The third part that’s exciting is it’s an educational tool to support customers who currently own a barbecue or are thinking about buying it. It teaches them in a hands-on way how they work and how to use them when they get home.

We’ve worked with great partners in order to actually fit out stores appropriately, but the challenges are always going to be about training and execution in-store and how competent the staff are. How much friction can we take out of the process for the store owner? Going in-store every day to buy a steak and cook it is another process time-poor owners will always find to be a challenge.

So we took an approach on the training front and every year, we work with owners on role-playing through hands-on cooking experiences. The Grill Academy is an immersive hands-on experience for store owners, so they get the picture of what is possible for a hands-on experience and we distil that into what you can deliver to a customer today. It’s about how you can take the tongs, cook your own piece of steak, feel comfortable, taste the flavour and believe you’re capable of doing it at home. We focus really heavily on training people to manage that process.

Then the other side of it is removing the inconvenience of coordinating it. We’ve started working with a fresh produce delivery service that provides our stores with not just meat to cook on the barbecue, but also vegetables, recipe prep and instructional cards that are delivered on a weekly basis to the stores. Those recipes and instructions are developed by our in-house food content team who are producing tips and tricks and inspirational recipe content. Then those guys flow that back into producing things that can be managed as an in-store cook. Obviously it’s different to the cooking you might do at home. We’ve distilled those recipes that are manageable at a store level to keep that in-store cooking environment going.

I think it’s so worthwhile. It’s hugely important to us that people are getting a fantastic result when they cook the product. It’s one thing to look nice and last long and Weber does do those things, but importantly, it’s about the barbecue you had with family and friends, the feeling you got when you were cooking and sitting with them or roasting your Christmas turkey for everybody. So it’s really important to us that we’re able to use that in the process of engaging our customers as well.

IRW: Weber has quite a passionate fanbase. How would you describe your customers?

MM: Our customer base is varied. It spreads across the entire spectrum. But one thing that’s consistent is that we often find people become very loyal and great advocates for the brand. What drives that? We’re a brand that’s been here for 41 years, and our vision has always been to create great word-of-mouth about Weber, so every interaction you have with the brand, whether you’re a supplier, customer or end user, we want you speaking positively.

We’re really deliberate about how the customer is going to speak about us when they finish using their Weber barbecue for the first time. If they have a terrible result, they’ll speak terribly. But if we can exceed expectations and make sure they enjoyed a wonderful meal, they’ll want to share that. That’s what we’ve seen in 40 years. We’ve built a base of advocates. It’s evident on social media, where there are die-hard collectors of Weber products and a lot of people who engage with us directly as a brand and feel connected. I think it’s because we’re engaging with them and sharing things that they find inspirational and educational and get more out of their experience.

We don’t tend to think of ourselves as an authority, but we think of ourselves as passionate and engaging. I’m a barbecue person first,

I love sharing that with people and that passion is infectious, it

flows through our whole business. Everythone that works here – whether they’re in customer admin or stores – everybody has passion and everyone has barbecues to take home. Whether it’s every night, once on a weekend or just in the summer, that experience of outdoor entertaining can really add a memorable element to people’s lives.

IRW: What plans do you have for the year head at Weber?

MM: It’s going to be a really exciting year. We’re very busy at the moment with barbecue sales for summer. This is the peak of the business, but we’ve got exciting stuff coming from new product development in 2020. We’ll be pushing into some new categories, which gives us an opportunity to give that experience to a new set of customers and engage a new group of people. We’re pushing harder into the world of connected tech. It is a trend throughout other sectors, not as much in barbecue, but it has existed, so Weber is pushing into that area to find new and innovative ways to help people who own Weber products get a fantastic result in their backyards.

On the retail end, in the Weber store network, we’re really on a mission to continue to enhance the in-store experience as well as build the network further.

IRW: Is the barbecue space particularly competitive? There are quite a few big discount players in the market.

MM: It’s certainly a competitive area when you look at the barbecue retail landscape. There are some big national players in the space but we fill a different space – we have a strong committed passionate network as well as some national partners that distribute products as well. But generally, it’s a competitive space; there are big players with lots of store presence and strong strategies and product selections, but we forge a different path.

In the last 12 months, things have been more competitive than they have in the past in the barbecue world, some of the pricing has been more aggressive. I don’t know if I’d say it’s an issue, it’s a part of the landscape that we have to deal with. There are different pressures but if we continue to focus on creating a really engaging brand experience for people who want to speak positively about the brand and share it with friends, then we’ll be providing an offer that’s of value to people.

IRW: What are some of the interesting trends around barbecuing?

MM: In the last five years, there’s been a trend towards smoking and low-and-slow American barbecue. People have a better understanding of what’s possible with things like pork shoulder and brisket. There’s been an interesting trend back to hands-on barbecuing, particularly in the last three to four years. People are getting more into barbecue as a hobby. It’s less utilitarian. There’s always a place for Tuesday night barbecue when you get home.

You just turn it on and eat with convenience and great flavour with the family.

Then there’s this real recreational thing where for hours and hours on a Saturday, you’re lighting and managing the fire and engaging with the process, that’s a great trend. I think it’s super healthy. It brings other players into the market that specialise in different areas. There’s more noise about barbecue – more people enjoying entertaining outside – it’s healthy for the entire industry. I also love that I can see people engaging in things that we’re passionate about.

It’s not universal, but people are more engaged in the process of barbecuing meat. The traditional barbecue is people sitting around with beers, flipping sausages, but now they’re monitoring the internal temperature of the food to make sure it comes off the barbecue at the right moment. The more people that get passionate, the better.

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