At a 2010 hearth industry trade show in Nashville, more than 100 North American fireplace retailers did something no similar group had ever done before: they drew from decades of experience and gave their best ideas for the design of what would be billed as “the ultimate gas fireplace for consumers.”
The spark that was that “Big Idea” has now grown into the fire of a full featured line of fireplaces and inserts for the 2016/17 heating season.
The event was Buyers University, an annual trade show sponsored by United Buyers Group (UBG), a Wisconsin-based organization that serves as a purchasing coordinator for more than 240 specialty fireplace stores in the United States and Canada. The goal was to gather the data necessary to create a line of fireplaces based on what elite hearth store owners believed their customers wanted most in a home heating appliance.
“The biggest, best-looking fire for the money – that was the objective,” said George Breiwa, chairman of United Buyers Group. “We wanted to provide ‘Cadillac’ and ‘Lincoln’ features in a mid-price, gas-driven appliance. Biggest bang for the buck, you could say. We’d never heard of a fireplace literally being designed through feedback from the people who sell them. We were excited to make it work.”
At Buyers University and also during UBG’s annual business meeting, store owner members wrote out their answers to two questions:
- What refinements would you incorporate into “the ultimate fireplace” if you were to design it?
- If this fireplace were going into your home, what would you want that’s different from other fireplaces on the market?
From conception to launch
Data in hand, Breiwa and Roy Mjelde, UBG’s national director of membership, got to work sifting through feedback and compiling data to present to engineering teams that would develop schematics and then prototypes. UBG members had provided a large base of suggestions, all geared toward what they believed would be most beneficial to homeowners. Ideas that made the cut and wound up in the design included:
- 2 Level Burner design that places additional embers below the main burner level to create a more realistic fire appearance
- Extra large glass fire viewing area
- Hand-painted log set with 12 pieces, not the usual six or seven in most available brands
- Accent lights with a wide range of luminance settings
- Six-speed blower system
- Remote device that can be handled or mounted on a wall to control everything including flame height, blower, internal lighting, pilot options and thermostat
- Ignition function to toggle between a continually operating or intermittent pilot system.
For the next year, engineers created several prototypes that UBG management and select hearth store members reviewed and evaluated. After several revisions and more field testing, in September 2012, the first Ambiance fireplace went on sale to the general public.
“It took almost a year and a half to go from ‘Hey, let’s build the greatest fireplace in the world’ to having the Ambiance in our stores,” Breiwa said. “That may seem like a long time to some, but this wasn’t just a fireplace design. It was a unified effort to bring homeowners the combined experience of a hundred hearth store veterans.”
In pricing the appliance, UBG analyzed the components of “full-featured” gas fireplaces from other makers. They found that “full-featured” often meant “with paid options.” Breiwa and his team made these options part of the standard Ambiance package, resulting in a sticker price $400 to $1,000 below comparable models from competing brands.
“We didn’t only want the best fireplace, we wanted a line that people could buy and enjoy right off the shelf without any bait-and-switch pricing tactics,” Breiwa said. “Turning features that are normally options into standard fare, we gave customers a few less things to have to think about.”
Taking ownership of the brand
Rich Hendrickson is the owner of Burlington Fireplace & Solar in Burlington, WI. As a participant in the initial UBG survey and an active member of United Fireplace & Stove, the marketing arm of UBG, he knew what he wanted the Ambiance to achieve.
“It was important for the fireplace design to be the right fit for the largest segment of our customers and give them the kind of value they’re always asking for,” Hendrickson said. “Creating the right sizes to fit most applications was very important, with ease of use and efficiency and a large open glass appearance also very important.”
Hendrickson has owned his hearth store since 1995, in Wisconsin, where freezing winters have made consumers more than a little fireplace-savvy. Customers bring expectations, Hendrickson said, and retailers had better be able to deliver on them.
“Being a part of the design and quality control of [the Ambiance] makes you feel like you’re taking ownership of the brand,” Hendrickson said. “And customers can sense that you deeply care about their product as if it was your own.”
A noisy blower was the problem
A customer of Burlington Fireplace, Patty Puidokas, says the design hit the nail on the head by paying attention to the large and small details. Patty and husband Tom bought their Ambiance Intrigue in February 2015.
“The blower on our old fireplace was way too loud, so that was one of the main reasons we were shopping for a new fireplace,” said Patty Puidokas, who lives 25 miles outside Burlington in Pleasant Prairie. “When we looked at the Ambiance models, we saw so many other great features like a nice safety screen that you can take on and off. We have nine grandchildren, so safety is important to us.”
The Puidokases also appreciate the level of heat the unit produces and what it costs to run it.
“This one throws off a lot of heat,” Patty Puidokas said. “It’s one hundred percent better – it almost heats up our whole house. We definitely like the value we got. We’ve used it most of two winters, and we haven’t noticed an increase in our gas bill. We’re very happy.”
Since the initial launch in 2012, UBG has expanded the Ambiance line with feature combinations stemming from its members’ initial survey feedback. Breiwa is confident that the brand’s success is a result of this novel idea.
“We get amazing [end-user] feedback all the time, and it’s wonderful but not surprising,” Breiwa said. “We set out to develop fireplaces that would absolutely satisfy and amaze the customers of our member stores. The only way I knew to accomplish that was to bring in a huge group of experts who have their fingers on the pulse of buyers all day long. We’re proud to be the first fireplace group to go at design this way. Maybe others will follow suit in the future.”