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Like moths, consumers still attracted to outdoor flame


Fire pits have been a part of outdoor living since the late 1990s but sales have skyrocketed the past few years as suppliers have expanded the category to give consumers more options. According to research from the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, sales of outdoor heating products increased more than 40% to $58 million in 2005 from $39.4 million in 2004 (sales figures for 2006 are not available).

The increase is being driven by more mass retailers entering the business and by suppliers providing a wider variety of fire pits. Once used primarily for heating on cool nights, fire pits have become part of outdoor decor and do double duty as tables, backyard grills and stylish centerpieces for patio sets.

A good example of the trend is the Firelight fireplace and table from Coleman. The fire pit is made of stainless steel with a wrought iron finish, a decorative bowl that showcases the fire (a fire can burn for up to two hours through two propane tanks) and a 30-inch granite ring that converts the fire pit into a table.

Coleman’s Jim Reid said the Firelight fireplace fits well with the company’s approach to the business. “We’ve always put more of an emphasis on ambience instead of making a fire pit that just provides heat,” said Reid, Coleman’s senior manager of public relations. “People want fire pits that are more stylish and give them options to match and coordinate with their decor.”

Coleman now has more than a half-dozen models ranging from its Firelight table to basic models made of copper or stainless steel with black or faux rock finishes, including its 30-inch stainless steel model now sold at Wal-Mart.

Exterior Accents targets a similar consumer with its award-winning 3-in-1 copper chiminea fire pit. The circular fire pit can be used as a wood-burning grill or fire pit and includes a copper top that doubles as a wood holder. The Dual Deck Grill features a 32-inch grill and a chopping board and functions as a standard charcoal grill with grill plates that can be removed to convert it into a wood burning fire pit once the cooking is done.

On the higher end are items like the Teak California Campfire. The wood-burning fire pit has a wood exterior covering a stainless steel frame and features a unique venting system that keeps the wood frame cool by drawing cool air from the bottom and venting hot air from the top. And Target has a new fire pit under its private label Target Home brand. The 30-inch fire pit that sells for $129.99 is made of stainless steel, comes with a poker and spark screen guard and is ringed with mosaic tile.

With so many retailers and manufacturers entering the business, fire pit sales are now tough to follow. HPBA spokesman Don Johnson said the association only tracks fire pit shipments from North American suppliers and that those numbers don’t provide a good picture of the overall market like they did a few years ago.

“We estimate there were 600,000 to 700,000 units shipped last year, which is actually down a little bit from the previous year,” said Johnson. “But that doesn’t count all the foreign importers from places like China that ship directly to mass merchants.”

Johnson said the growing popularity of fire pits has expanded the business from specialty retail to the major mass merchants like Wal-Mart and Target, making the industry difficult to track. “You have big players like Wal-Mart selling a lot of fire pits and they don’t share sales information,” said Johnson. “So the business is certainly growing but I wouldn’t feel comfortable estimating an annual sales figure and I’m not sure how anyone could.”

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