Category Report: Power tools
Advancements in battery technology, more efficient tool engineering and ergonomic design have transformed the power tools segment in recent years. But this golden age of development and innovation hasn’t translated into sales growth, because all the major categories are in retreat, according to consumer data from The NPD Group.
Today’s power tools are generally smaller, yet just as potent; they are also versatile, longer-lasting and more durable. Lithium-ion battery technology improvements, in particular, have enabled manufacturers to develop cordless tools that are smaller and lighter, while maintaining or improving performance.
Perhaps the biggest trend is the one pushing consumers to “value-oriented” products. For instance, NiCd power tools still outsell other battery technologies. “Price is a direct component of this trend,” said Jonathan Patterson, product manager for Handy Hardware Wholesale Inc. “And while the price difference between [Li-ion and NiCd] might be narrowing, costs are still increasing for both. I see end users willing to pay for quality and brand names, but the final price still weighs heavily in their decision-making.”
Christine Potter, director of marketing for DeWalt Cordless Products, agrees there is still significant demand for NiCd batteries, “as they are a very proven job site solution,” she said. DeWalt’s strategy for its 18V line is to offer customers a choice. “All of our 18V tools accept either NiCd or Li-ion, giving our users a lot of flexibility,” she said.
Derek Vlcko, senior product manager at Porter-Cable, said that as more suppliers enter the lithium-ion market, prices will start to come down. Until then, he doesn’t see a lot of movement in Li-ion products. “We’re not going to see anything ground-breaking,” he said. “For the most part, we have seen incremental changes. It has kind of stabilized.”
In the 12V category, however, 12V Li-ion has been the fastest-growing segment of professional power tools over the last two years, according to Potter. “With the small size and light weight, many professional users are finding these tools as an ideal complement to their 18V line,” she said.
Not just battery technology
When it comes to improving run-time, batteries usually get all the credit. However, suppliers say steps have been taken to improve the efficiency of the tools themselves so that the energy from the battery is used more effectively. “A battery is like a gas tank on a car; it is how much fuel you have to work with,” Potter said. “The car’s transmission and motor design greatly impact how efficiently that fuel is used. A tool works the same way. There have been a lot of advancements in engineering simulations, as well as materials that have resulted in our tools’ motors, transmissions, clutches and switches becoming more efficient, thus giving our users more run-time.”
Combo kits growing
Combo kits have been on a steady ascent since debuting in the mid-1990s and now represent a sizable portion of the cordless professional market. DeWalt’s own research shows the average cordless user owns six tools and six batteries and that the combo kit is chosen as the way to first enter a cordless system. “Users value standardizing on a system so that they only need one type of charger on the site, and so that all the batteries are interchangeable should one run out of power,” Potter said.
Within the Do it Best network, sets are gaining ground, with NiCd leading the way. “The lithium sets I’ve seen growing sales are the smaller two- or three-piece sets, where the NiCd are mainly four or more piece counts,” Patterson said.
While pricing continues to sway the category, features on tools continue to improve. For example, keyless chucks and blade clamps as well as on-board LED lighting have become standard on most professional products. “Attention is constantly given to make sure the tools are comfortable and balanced for our users, as they will spend the entire work day with our products,” Potter said. “This includes focus on areas like grip design, controls and actuators. We also spend time monitoring demographics of the work force and incorporate that data into the designs.”
“Our combo kits are humming,” Vlcko said. “Our two-kit and four-kit combo sets are doing exceptionally well, and both DIYers and professionals are enjoying the versatility of the tools.”
A dashboard adjusts to the times
There was finally some significant movement on the HCN Industry Dashboard housing starts dials. Unfortunately, the movement was almost entirely the result of a recalibration.
When introduced in August 2009, the original Dashboard’s starts-dial spanned from 200,000 to 2.6 million. But the needle has languished on the low end of the scale.
The new dials span from 300,000 to 1.1 million. The editors have also introduced a second needle, pointing to the pace of the prior month’s activity. Both moves are designed to make the dials easier to read.
But not even the friendlier display could sweeten the results of Februrary. Total housing starts fell to a SAAR of 479,000, while single-family starts slipped to a pace of 375,000 — both near record lows.
Category Report: Mowers
Electric corded lawn mowers accounted for only 6% of the walk-behind market in 2010 — but that’s up from 2.9% in 2009, according to data from consumer research firm The NPD Group.
Soaring fuel prices, tougher government emissions standards and a general trend toward environmental stewardship have given rise to more cordless electric walk mowers and manual mowers, especially for homeowners with smaller lawns. And powered mowers are feeling the trend, as well.
Rob Little, manager of the walk mower category for Toro, said the green movement combined with higher gasoline prices has resulted in more homeowners looking at cordless battery-powered mowers the last two seasons. “For this reason, we introduced last spring our new e-Cycler cordless mower,” Little said. The e-Cycler combines a 36-volt system and 20-in. cutting deck, making it a good fit for yards of a quarter acre or less.
Little said, however, that while homeowners are interested in green products, “they are typically not willing to pay extra for them.”
Sun Joe president Joseph Cohen is more bullish on the green trend, which he sees encompassing all landscaping activities. “We think the trend of manual, electric lawn mowers is here to stay, as more consumers continue to adopt a ‘greener’ attitude,” Cohen said. “We also believe that convenience is key. Our products offer a variety of intuitive features — from large wheels for greater maneuverability and low resistance, to a self-propelled system drive that allows the mower to do almost all the work — that make lawn maintenance quick, easy and affordable.”
Sun Joe’s new line, Mow Joe, features electric models that do not require gas, oil or tune-ups — thus no concerns about startup or maintenance. Some units are cordless, Cohen said, which allows for easy maneuverability around yards.
Go green or else
As Little pointed out, some consumers will not pay extra for green products. Soon, though, they may have no choice, or will be incentivized to do so.
New regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take effect beginning this year that would require engines on mowers to meet more stringent evaporative and emissions standards. These new national standards are similar to the CARB requirements (California Air Resources Board) in place in California since 2007.
To get in front of the forthcoming stricter emission standards, Toro this year introduced a Kohler XT6 engine on its Lawn-Boy walk mower lineup. The Kohler XT6 engine employs overhead valve technology for greater efficiency, cleaner emissions and improved durability. Toro has also introduced a “Smart Speed” drive system that allows the operator to select from a high or low ground speed setting — high speed for mowing open areas and low speed when added control/maneuverability is needed in tight areas around landscaping, Little said.
As consumers adopt newer electric technology as the “go-to” machine for lawn maintenance over traditional gas-powered machines, mower companies are responding with “convenience” machines, according to Cohen. The Mow Joe cordless units, for example, come with a removable and rechargeable 24-volt battery to enhance performance when fully charged.
“Our products offer a variety of intuitive features — from large wheels for greater maneuverability and low resistance to a self-propelled system drive that allows the mower to do almost all the work — that make lawn maintenance quick, easy and affordable,” Cohen said.