Hand in Glove

The health of the wood pellet industry will forever very tightly correlate with the passion and expertise in selling wood pellet appliances found within the retail segment.
By Tim Portz | May 31, 2019

While on a pellet supply chain and member tour in Washington and Oregon in early May, I had the opportunity to visit multiple locations of Coastal Farm & Ranch, a multistore retailer in the Pacific Northwest that I profiled in a story for Pellet Mill Magazine a couple of years ago. My conversations with store managers, hearth managers and the lead category buyer for Coastal underscored my belief that the health of the wood pellet industry will forever very tightly correlate with the passion and expertise in selling wood pellet appliances found within the retail segment. A stop at Coastal’s Yakima store really drove this point home. In conversation, the store manager told me he had spent several years managing the location’s hearth department and had even performed service calls. Very quickly, the conversation turned to specific appliance models, optimized fuel and air ratios and the technological leaps that appliances have made since his time in the hearth department. The breadth and depth of his knowledge was impressive—the pellet-burning customers in his service area have a great resource available to them. What really struck me was the years of accumulated experience required to become that knowledgeable, and the importance of harnessing that expertise and passion as an organization.

In 2018, the Pellet Fuels Institute implicitly connected our fortunes with those of our retail partners by launching our market-growth strategy Operation 100k, a broad effort to return annual pellet appliance sales to a minimum of 100,000 units. I’m happy to report that in 2019, the PFI will make the importance of the retailer/fuel manufacturer relationship more explicit by adding at least one retail representative to our board of directors. As this issue of Pellet Mill Magazine goes to press, our nominations committee is finalizing the ballot for our incoming board members, and we’re actively recruiting from the retail community. While I’m not surprised, I remain humbled by the interest within this community to support our organization with their time and energy. After all, pellet appliances represent a small fraction of the overall sales of most specialty hearth retailers. A recent article in the May issue of Hearth & Home revealed that just 12% of heating appliance sales are pellet appliances. The owners and operators of specialty hearth, barbecue and patio stores face the enormous challenge of staying abreast of a rapidly expanding suite of products and technologies, competing with online retailers and complying with changing federal regulations. PFI’s invitation to retailers to participate on our board as a means of better understanding our views as manufactures may help them succeed in selling more appliances and fuel.

The first question we’ll be interested in asking our new retail members is how the PFI can best support their efforts. The aforementioned Hearth & Home article also highlighted the importance of fuel availability to hearth retailers. The enormity of this challenge is well understood by the fuel manufacturers within the PFI, and this year, the industry worked overtime to minimize the impact of extremely tight fiber inventories on our retail partners. While reports of shortages did occur this year, I think the better story is the lesser told one—the work retailers and pellet manufacturers did together to minimize the frequency and depth of those shortages. Having a retailer on the board will allow the PFI to think more formally, intentionally and strategically about challenges like fuel availability, but we have no intention of stopping there. We fully expect to integrate our new retail board members into our efforts to increase the profile of pellet appliances with consumers, leverage the incredible momentum of the BBQ pellet category to our greatest advantage, and guarantee that once a consumer does choose a pellet-burning appliance, they can readily select a high-quality wood pellet fuel that will perform in their stove reliably.

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Director, Pellet Fuels Institute
[email protected]