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Merchandising Portable Generators

Portable generators can be a good big-ticket item for your store if you are prepared to help your customers understand what their power needs are and match those needs with the right product.

Portable generators are becoming much more popular with RVers because they offer RVers more freedom to venture to areas outside of the campground with hookups, neighbors and noise. Motorhome RVers are using small portable generators to avoid the high cost of fuel to run their big onboard generator when they only need 2,000 to 2,500 watts to watch TV, run the microwave oven or charge the batteries.

Many RVers purchased their first portable generator over the past few years, when several generator manufacturers entered the RV market. Some of these generators were very inexpensive, allowing many RVers to experience the freedom of boondocking for the first time, or allowing the dry campers to enjoy more lights and appliances by recharging the batteries. Unfortunately for many of those RVers, the inexpensive generators didn’t hold up. Still, it did give them the taste of freedom and adventure, so many are now shopping for generators that best fit their needs, and they are coming to you looking for help.

Portable generators are a good big-ticket item for your store and you can take advantage of the demand for these products if you make sure that you are prepared to help your customers with their generator purchase.

The Right Generator for the Job

The first question you need answered is what size generator your customer needs. Ask your customer what appliances they want to run and what appliances they anticipate running at the same time. Add up the watts of those appliances and that will give you a rough idea of the size generator they need.

Take into account that starting an electric motor or air conditioner takes two to three times the running wattage. Some wattage averages are:

  • 13,500 Btu air conditioner = 1,200~2,000 watts, running and 3,000~6,000 at start up
  • 1,000-watt microwave over = 1,500 watts
  • Electric water heater = 1,400 watts
  • Refrigerator = 650 watts
  • Battery converter = 150~1,000 watts, depending on battery condition

Next, find out what your customer’s priorities are: Noise, quality, weight, size, cost, fuel economy.

  • Noise: Use caution when comparing various manufacturers’ noise specifications because there isn’t an industry standard guideline for rating noise. Different manufacturers may use different amount of load or measure from a different distance from the generator. Comparing noise specifications model to model from the same manufacturer is probably pretty safe, but even some of those can be misleading. If noise is a high priority, the customer needs to actually listen to the generator with actual loads to simulate actual use. If low noise is your customer’s priority you should direct them to generators with the enclosed design. If noise is less of a priority, the open style generators are typically lower priced.
  • Quality: Quality and cost often go hand in hand. If your customer plans to use their generator a lot and want their generator to be reliable, they will be happier with a high-quality, long-lasting generator. To the contrary, if your customer plans to use it moderately and doesn’t want to spend the amount of money that a high-quality durable generator costs, a lower-cost, lower-quality brand may be right for them. A good way for the customer to determine the quality, life and longevity of a generator is to reference the generator’s emission label.
    The emission label shows the engine life rating and the hours that the engine is certified to be emission-compliant. The higher-quality engines have longer engine life ratings (see Figure 1).
  • Weight: If weight is a priority, your customer should be referred to the inverter-style generators. The inverter-style is typically 25 percent to 50 percent lighter than comparable conventional-style generators.
  • Size: If size is a priority, you should refer your customer to the inverter-style generator because they are typically smaller than the conventional-style generator.
  • Cost: Cost is always a concern of your customer. Cost is mainly determined by the generator output, quality, technology and style. The higher output generators require bigger alternators and more powerful engines, which increase the cost over generators with lower power output. Higher quality generators often, but not always, cost more than lower quality generators. Pay attention to the engine life rating on the emission label. It’s surprising how short the engine life rating is on some of the popular generator models. Inverter generators cost more than conventional design generators. Enclosed generators are quieter, and more expensive, than open-style generators.
  • Fuel Economy: Inverter generators are more fuel efficient than conventional-style generators. Therefore, an inverter generator will cost more initially, but greater fuel efficiency gives the inverter much lower annual operating cost compared to a conventional design generator.

Demonstrations Help Seal the Deal

A generator demonstration is often the best way to close the sale, especially when the customer’s priories are low noise and high quality. The quietest generators on the market are so unbelievably quiet that most people cannot comprehend how quiet they are until they hear them. One demo is worth a thousand words.

Explain to your customer that by applying some power management techniques they could enjoy their RVing with a smaller generator. Show your customer where to turn off the electric water heater and how to switch the refrigerator from “auto” to “gas.” Using a meter like Reliance Controls’ AmWatt meter (, show your customer how much power their RV is drawing when it seems that all the appliances are off. For example, even when the appliances appear to be off the converter, microwave clock, carbon monoxide detector, television and stereo heater, etc., are all still pulling power. There are many parasitic power draws in an RV.

If the batteries are deeply discharged, a generator that will normally run the air conditioner may not be able to run the a/c and recharge deeply discharged batteries at the same time. In this case, charge the batteries for a while before starting the a/c.

Another common way to overtax the generator is by turning the air conditioner off, then on within four minutes. Turning the a/c on shortly after turning it off doesn’t allow time for the coolant pressure to subside, so the a/c compressor motor must start up against very high head pressure, requiring tremendous power. This may be too much for the generator and result in the tripping of the generator’s safety circuit breaker. To avoid this, allow the a/c to cycle normally or let it rest for four minutes before turning the compressor back on.

Customers may search for generators on the Internet, in catalogs or at your competitors’ stores to shop for products and compare prices. Keep in mind that when the customer comes into your store with a competitor’s price the customer is telling you “I want to buy it form you.” If they wanted to buy if from your competitor they would have and would not be in your store.

Many customers feel that a generator is a complex, expensive, mechanical piece of equipment and they want to feel comfortable buying it from a knowledgeable dealer that will support the complex, expensive, mechanical piece of equipment.

If the customer says they know what brand and model they want and they just want to know your price you should tell the customer that a generator is an expensive purchase and that you want to make sure that they are getting the right model for their needs. This will show your customer that you care and are concerned about them.
Then run through their priorities and power needs. If you think they should be buying a different model, offer to demonstrate the generator on their RV.

If the customer insists on buying a generator that you think doesn’t fit their needs it’s up to you to decide if you want a customer that will be unhappy with their purchase, or to let them be unhappy buying their generator from someone else. It’s often better to let them be unhappy buying from someone else.

Usually, the customer doesn’t expect you to match the Internet/catalog/competitor’s price. They want to feel that they did their homework, shopping, and got the best price they could.

If that customer was driven to your store because they saw someone else’s ad they could be a new customer for you, a customer that you didn’t spend money on to pull into your store. It might be wise to make the sale, get as much as you can and look at it as incremental sales. Take advantage of customers that are driven to your store with other people’s advertising.