LOUISVILLE — The smooth black container in Ann Roche's hand resembles a carrying case, until she plugs it into the top of a silver lawn mower. She is demonstrating the latest thing in mower technology, a rechargeable, removable battery pack. The invention would be the pride of any power equipment manufacturer, except here it was unveiled by one of the world's largest makers of gasoline engines, Briggs & Stratton Corp.
Briggs & Stratton's 10-month scramble to develop an electric power-pack system is indicative of the changes occurring in the world of outdoor power equipment.
A visit to the industry's annual trade show revealed just how dynamic this push toward innovation has become. About 25,000 dealers, distributors and retailers converged recently for the three-day expo given by 600 exhibitors; the show is sponsored by the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, based in Alexandria, Va., and is used to introduce equipment going on sale next winter and spring: lawn mowers of every imaginable type, plus string trimmers, leaf blowers, lawn edgers, chain saws, rototillers and snow blowers.
Amid the hoopla was the very real sense that a once conservative industry has raced to reinvent itself in the past two years in response to two main pressures: more women entering the marketplace and growing demands from environmentalists for quieter, cleaner equipment.
"It used to be if a machine looked ugly enough and noisy enough, it must be good," said Warner C. Frazier, CEO of Simplicity Manufacturing Inc., of Port Washington, Wis. The company now has garden tractors with sloping, stylish hoods, shrouded engines, automatic transmissions, cruise control, wrap-around headlights and cup holders.
What was the macho tool for the man has become a status symbol for the whole family, especially when top-of-the-line garden tractors cost $6,000 or more. "We have customers who park John Deeres in their driveway just to make sure their neighbors know," said Robert Tracinski, a spokesman for that company. Its premium tractors have a distinctive color scheme of yellow and a patented shade of green.
Surveys show that more than 70 million Americans garden at some level, and they support a $5 billion-a-year power-equipment industry.
The expo also is a reminder that for all the talk in horticultural circles about the movement away from environmentally demanding and labor-intensive lawns and toward perennial beds, the greensward is still king of the American home landscape. And with the relentless growth of suburbia, few here expect that to change. Sales of walk-behind power mowers are forecast to climb 6.8% next year, to more than 6 million.