Product Innovation

Creating Breakthrough Products

As the media’s reports on the dire state of the home-improvement industry continue,one would think that hearth manufacturers are handing out pink slips on a daily basis while halting all new product development. This is certainly not the case with Napoleon Products (Barrie, Ontario), which continues to grow while many of its competitors are reducing operations. Napoleon has even increased participation in trade shows in 2009 and will exhibit at the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show for the first time in Atlanta in May.

One of the primary reasons that family-owned Napoleon has done so well over the years (even during economic slowdowns) is that its founders and owners, Wolfgang and Ingrid Schroeter, make product development a major priority. “At Napoleon, we focus on creating the best possible product first, and then we look at everything else,” Greg Thomas, director of sales, explains.

This commitment to product development has helped Napoleon become one of the strongest fireplace/grill manufacturers in the industry and also has helped it weather the current economic meltdown. Consumers in search of high-quality, premium fireplaces and grills seek out Napoleon because they know that they are getting cutting-edge products backed by a lifetime warranty.

The perfect example is the contemporary LHD50 linear direct-vent fireplace, which was introduced in March and has generated considerable attention. Thomas, a 15-year veteran of Napoleon, says, “I’m getting more calls on this product than any I can ever remember in the past.”

What sets the LHD50 apart from the competition is that it can be accessorized in a variety of ways, depending on the customer’s decor and personal tastes. Although it comes standard with a glass ember bed, some customers opt for river rocks or colored glass. “Customers can get very creative with this product, selecting different colored trims; different colored glass ember beds; and even optional curved, prism-shaped porcelain reflective radiant panels,” Thomas says.

One of the reasons that the LHD50 is so successful is that it was carefully designed and engineered based on dealers’ input about the prototype. “This is one of the advantages of being a privately owned company,” Thomas notes. “We have the flexibility to make changes as needed, and we’re not afraid to go back to the drawing board when dealers suggest that a change in the product’s design could result in an increase in sales of the product.”

To maintain its position as a leader in product development, Napoleon recently strengthened its research-and-development department by adding new engineering staff positions and increasing physical space. A climate of teamwork pervades the entire organization, so virtually every employee is encouraged to offer ideas.

Bimonthly and annual sales meetings are also a source of valuable information on products, since sales representatives provide feedback on what types of products the retailers believe will succeed in the marketplace. Wolfgang Schroeter (along with other members of his family) plays an active role in product development. “This is a very hands-on family, and they spend a lot of time attending shows in Europe and visiting people there to find out what’s popular,” Thomas says. “In many instances, what’s popular in Europe in terms of hearth products catches on here two or three years later.”

One design trend that originated in Europe and has now been widely adopted in North America is the contemporary look of fireplaces and stoves. Several years ago, Napoleon recognized that many consumers in the United States and Canada were becoming interested in European-style hearth products with clean, simple lines. The company did not waste any time developing this part of its business. “We recognized the need to introduce products that are appealing to today’s new consumers,” Thomas says.

He stresses that many emerging generation-Y consumers are looking for hearth products that are hip and contemporary, and he also predicts that women will continue to play a bigger role as hearth consumers. To develop products that appeal to these new consumers, Napoleon recognizes the importance of recruiting young designers and engineers who understand this market segment.

Napoleon’s sleek direct-vent Crystallo™ fireplace is the perfect example of a contemporary fireplace that has been popular with consumers. “Since it only produces 17,000 Btu, it is not an overbearing heat source, so it’s great for bedrooms or dining rooms, or in locations situated higher up in a wall,” Thomas says. “This product is even selling well in markets that we didn’t expect, such as the Midwest.”

Since its inception in 1978 as a wood-stove manufacturer, Napoleon has remained successful by diversifying into new areas. About 10 years ago, the company recognized that the opportunity for specialty retailers to offer premium gas grills could be profitable, particularly during the warmer months, when there’s a lull in fireplace sales. Thus, Napoleon Gourmet Grills was launched, and it has been cranking out high-end grills ever since.

According to Ted Scott, national sales manager, Napoleon Gourmet Grills, the Schroeters recognized, early on, that consumer demand existed for high-end grills supported by a strong warranty. “It wasn’t about offering a low–price-point product that could be sold in Sears or Lowe’s; they wanted to manufacture a product that would complement the specialty retailer base,” Scott says.

The introduction of grills was quickly followed with the launch of grill accessories, including utensils, wood chips, sauces, spices, rubs, marinades, cedar planks, wok toppers, pizza ovens, and smoking elements.

“We sell with a focus on the cooking experience, so it’s important that we offer retailers the entire package—from a full range of premium grills to all the accessories available to enhance the outdoor-cooking experience,” Scott says.

Recognizing that outdoor chefs seek ways to personalize their outdoor-cooking spaces, Napoleon launched the Oasis line of modular islands in late 2008. The Oasis island fits Napoleon’s Mirage and Prestige II built-in grill heads and features a variety of accessories. According to Scott, the Oasis modular line has been a strong seller in today’s economy because it allows customers to make a complete outdoor room at a reasonable price.

Other new grill products that will be launched this year by Napoleon include higher-end tools sets and a new charcoal tray that includes a built-in smoker box. The company is currently introducing an infrared side burner as an accessory for the Prestige grill series.

Although the fireplace and grill divisions of Napoleon have distinct research-and-development departments, there is considerable crossover in terms of collaboration with product development. “We also encourage our dealers to supply us with ideas for grills in the same way that they do for fireplaces,” Scott says.

These days, dealers are expressing considerable interest in green hearth products and barbecue grills. According to Thomas, every fireplace and stove in development is examined closely in terms of its ability to burn cleanly and efficiently. “It’s almost as if consumers are buying a car—they ask what the emissions are for specific hearth products,” he says. Scott adds that grills powered by charcoal, infrared heat, and electricity are catching on with consumers who want products that use renewable fuels and efficient heat sources.

Given the strength of its new products, as well those currently in the pipeline, it’s easy to see why Napoleon feels confident about the future. These may be challenging times economically, but there is still a strong demand for high-quality hearth products and grills. Although attendance was down by 30 percent at the International Builders’ Show in January, Napoleon experienced a 30-percent increase in sales leads from the previous year. Thomas sums things up optimistically, saying, “The timing is perfect for us right now, and we feel very fortunate.”


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