Some dealerships already reordering equipment

An early spring across much of the U.S. has boosted outdoor power equipment sales, in some cases leaving dealerships and manufacturers such as Ariens Co. scrambling to keep up.

It's not a bad problem to have, especially after some recent years when the weather and the economy left the industry in the doldrums.

Some dealerships are already reordering lawn and garden equipment after they sold what they thought would be several months of inventory.

A large Ariens dealership in Louisiana sold more than a month's worth of products in one weekend, said company president Dan Ariens.

In early January, Brillion-based Ariens Co. switched from making snow removal equipment to lawn and garden machines - about a month ahead of schedule.

It will keep making lawn and garden gear well into the fall, Dan Ariens said.

That's partly because inventories are tight, and consumers have returned to more normal spending habits after several years of not making equipment purchases.

"They're buying more than they did last year, regardless of the weather," Ariens said.

Briggs & Stratton Co., the world's largest manufacturer of small gasoline engines, says it remains cautiously optimistic about outdoor power equipment sales this spring.

Thursday, Briggs announced layoffs at its Poplar Bluff, Mo., factory that makes engines for the European market and has too much manufacturing capacity for the current level of business.

The company expects global sales to be up 4% to 5% this year, with strengths in developing nations.

An early spring in the United States, while encouraging, doesn't always boost lawn and garden equipment business in the following months, according to Briggs & Stratton.

The good weather can end quickly, said company spokeswoman Laura Timm.

Sales lost from poor weather in April aren't necessarily made up in May, Ariens added.

Privately held Ariens Co. does not release annual sales figures but is considered one of the market-share leaders in two-stage snow throwers and is a smaller player in the lawn and garden equipment business with larger competitors such as Toro and John Deere.

The company's independent dealerships compete with Home Depot and other retail chains, some of which also sell Ariens products - although they are different models.

Increasingly, online shopping has changed the marketplace for outdoor power equipment.

"We try not to have our product on, but sometimes it will show up there," Ariens said.

In some ways the Internet has made it easier for salespeople because they don't have to spend as much time explaining their products.

"About 90% of consumers who walk into our power-equipment dealers have already got all of the information they wanted, gathered from online," Ariens said.

Power equipment dealerships usually don't compete with large retail chains and online businesses based on price. Instead they emphasize service, parts and repairs.

Speedway Sales & Service, a dealership in New Berlin, has been inundated with service work in recent weeks.

"Hopefully, spring doesn't hit a brick wall like winter did," which slowed snow thrower sales, said Speedway owner Rizwan Ahmad.

The nearly snowless winter in some areas hurt landscape contractors who rely on snow plowing for their winter income. Many of them use some of that money to buy commercial lawn equipment in the spring.

"Given their tight cash position, some may not buy as much equipment early in the season," said Tom Cromwell, president of Kohler Engines, a division of Kohler Co.

Hopefully they can make up lost income through a strong lawn-cutting season.

"April and May are really the critical months for this business, so we would love to see continued warm temperatures and enough rain to keep things green and growing," Cromwell said.