Consumer Rider Market Primed for Comeback

Dealers who didn't properly stock up on consumer riders this year may be mowed over by customers hungry to make a purchase. The season started out strong and early, with homeowners hitting up dealer open houses with plans to buy.

Following the trends in consumer purchasing, and personalizing your sales and service, can keep that momentum started in the early spring going through the summer.

Recovery year

Warm weather early in the year had consumers excited to buy, and as a result dealers saw a surge in showroom traffic. Many equipment manufacturers have cited high volume orders in ride-on and walk-behind consumer mower products. Forecasts also indicate that the demand could continue through the coming months.

"The lawn and garden season started off strong with the unseasonably warm weather that most of the country saw," says Mike Van Helvoirt, product marketing manager for residential at Ariens Company. "The demand spike was pulled forward by about 30 days in many parts of the country."

Sales are already ahead of last year, signifying what could be a strong recovery year for the product segment. Dealers are continuing to refresh their consumer rider inventories in the selling season, but many are cautiously optimistic.

"The consumer mower market seems to be regaining strength," says Kim Ridel, tactical brand manager for riding lawn equipment at John Deere. "At this point in time, industry sales are ahead of last year, which of course, is very positive. Due to the early arrival of spring in various parts of the U.S., dealer orders started early and have continued at a steady pace. Given that industry sales are ahead of last year, we’re optimistic, but it’s really too soon to tell."

According to the most recent shipment data from OPEI, mower shipments are up 8.1% from 2011. Even stronger growth is anticipated for 2013. Sales of consumer mowers are being driven by housing starts and consumers with more disposable income. Both will continue to increase in the next two years, according to the report.

Customer buying trends

To further guarantee your success in the selling season, it is important to stay clued into the trends in consumer purchasing. Know what your consumer customers are after, and be sure to keep products that meet their needs and desires in stock.

"Due to the early spring weather this season, we have had a quick start to season spring demand from both the consumer side and the professional side of our business," says Jeff Hallgren, director of product and channel development at Schiller Grounds Care. "Driving the consumer side of our business is their need for value price points that provide professional performance in cut, traction and maneuverability, comfort and controls."

Many large-property owners have, in recent years, taken on lawn maintenance chores that they had previously contracted a landscaper to perform. They want to get the same results as a professional, but do it themselves in as little time as possible.

"We sell a lot of mowers to large-acreage owners who want a reliable mower so they can finish their yard work, get a carpet-like cut and still have most of the weekend left for fun with the family," agrees Patsy Penner, marketing coordinator for The Grasshopper Company.

Ridel agrees, saying homeowners are looking for features like power steering, power lift and comfortable seats that make their lives easier. There is also a visible trend of consumers choosing zero-turn mowers over the traditional garden tractor.

Residential rider sales are up 5.3% in 2012. With this growth, the industry size will be up to 1.16 million, but still much lower than the 1.7-1.8 million shipment levels seen between 2003 and 2005.

Husqvarna has recently introduced a new lawn tractor. "The Fast Tractor is designed to fit the needs of consumers who demand all-around high performance and high quality," says John Marchionda, vice president of marketing for Husqvarna. "We chose to officially launch this product now to bring awareness to consumers during lawn care season and to capitalize on the SPEED association with our partners (Lowe's, Jimmie Johnson, and Anything with an Engine video game) so that the Fast Tractor brand promise really resonates with consumers."

Customers are searching for a mower that saves them money in the long run. No, they aren’t looking for the lowest purchase price, but are investing in a quality product that will perform for years to come with regular maintenance.

"Low cost of ownership is more economical than low purchase price, so smart consumers are looking for long-term value," explains Penner. "They want a mower that not only provides a clean, level cut, but will outlast its warranty and still have good value." 

Personalized selling

Many dealers started out with a spring open house to bring customers—excited about the changes in weather—in to see the product they could use to keep their lawns in check this year. It gives them an opportunity to interact with customers and introduce products.

"Educate the local market about your brands and the difference your company adds," says Hallgren. "Move beyond traditional advertising to build relationships and connect with prospects for today and in the future."

Once the initial spring rush is over, dealers need to keep themselves and their mowers on the minds of consumers. A great way to connect with customers is to personalize the selling experience as much as possible. A great way to do that is with on-site demos.

"The way to sell a high-quality riding mower like Grasshopper to a large acreage owner
is to demonstrate its high performance and heavy-duty construction on site," says Penner. "Not all zero-turning-radius mowers are created equal, and the way to show the
differences and advantages is to demonstrate on grass, to experience the handling and ride, and see how it operates in actual mowing conditions."

Personalizing the customers' experience should also include personal programs for equipment service that meet their specific needs. Many consumers will need reminders and help with maintenance. Sending reminders their way in the mail shows you are thinking of them—and the performance and life of their equipment.

Working with the customer to extend the life of the mower to its fullest potential builds the customer's faith in your services and products. They are more likely to return to you to purchase their next mower and encourage their friends and family to do the same.

"Selling service is always a positive for a dealer. The fact of the matter is that most outdoor power equipment will need routine service to maintain optimal performance," says Van Helvoirt. "If you can get the customer to come back for service on their equipment, they are back in your store and you have another contact point with that customer."