STOCKHOLM – Europes backyards have become the latest front in the robot wars.
With a quarter of lawn owners saying they dislike mowing the grass, sales of machines that will do the job for them are taking off, especially in Europe where landscaping services are more expensive than in the United States.
That has spurred a legion of manufacturers to challenge market leader Husqvarna. Robert Bosch Deere & Co. and Global Garden Products Italy this year started offering robotic mowers, which Husqvarna sells for as much as 5,000 euros, or $6,487. Honda plans to enter the fray in 2013.
We felt we had to get on board, said Thomas Olsson, head of Swedish operations at privately owned Global Garden Products. For the first time you hear that people exchange relatively new manual mowers for robots.
The market for hands-free mowers, which expanded by more than 30 percent last year, offers a rare bright spot in Europes consumer climate. The European market may grow as much as 20 percent annually over the next five years, Olsson said. Most of the customers are in Sweden, Germany, France and Switzerland – countries that have proven resilient to the debt crisis.
Demand for the garden robots has exploded the last couple of years, said Mats Gustafsson, owner of Moheda Jarnhandels, a hardware store in the southern Swedish town of Moheda. Gustafsson said hes sold almost 60 robomowers this year, compared with fewer than 10 five years ago.
Its still a niche market in Europe as a whole, but its growing so fast so that in some countries its now starting to be a mainstream segment, said Henric Andersson, head of product management and development at Husqvarna. With time, it may be as big or bigger than regular mowers in some countries.
Six percent of all mowers sold in Germany are now robotic, and the countrys automatic mower market is growing in double digits, according to research company GfK Retail and Technology.
Husqvarna, the former Electrolux unit that produced the first robotic mower in 1995, has six models that can care for lawns ranging from 400 square meters, or 4,306 square feet to 6,000 square meters. Outside of Europe, it mainly sells the mowers in Australia and New Zealand.
The Swedish company brought the product to North America in 2001, only to retreat a year later after concluding the market wasnt ready. In addition to the greater use of landscaping services by U.S. homeowners, North American grass, especially in the southern United States, is generally tougher than European varieties, making it difficult for the machines fine blades to work effectively, according to Husqvarna.
Bosch, the worlds largest supplier of car parts, entered the robotic mower market last month when it started selling its Indego machine in Scandinavia. Deere, based in Moline, Ill., joined the rivalry earlier in the year with the John Deere Tango E5, which it sells in Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland.
Global Garden Products, based in Castelfranco Veneto, Italy, bought its way into the $170 million market in January when it acquired LiCo srls Lizard mower marque, and rebranded those machines under its Stiga brand.
Andersson declined to discuss Husqvarnas market share, saying only were clearly the market leader.
The mowers use sensor technology to stay within a defined area of the yard, and are typically able to avoid obstacles such as trees and lawn furniture. Some of the mowers, including those made by Husqvarna, move around in random patterns, while others such as Bosch machines follow distinct lines.
Unlike traditional mowers, they dont collect the cut grass, as the clippings are so small they break down fast and act as fertilizer; instead the rechargable mowers are used frequently, often daily.
The price of robotic mowers may be barrier to their success. Husqvarnas models start at 1,700 euros. Most electric walk-behind mowers sell for 300 euros to 900 euros.
Prices will come down, and when theyre inexpensive enough the market will become mainstream, according to Husqvarnas Andersson. About 1,000 euros may be a magical line for the customer, he said.