Rise of the Lawn-Cutting Machines

Self-directed mowers are Europe’s fastest-growing garden tool
Photograph by Ted Soqui/Corbis

Cutting the grass every weekend has long been the bane of sports-obsessed fathers and teens who’d rather spend Saturdays playing video games. Husqvarna, Europe’s biggest maker of lawn mowers, thinks it has the solution: turf-trimming robots. The market for robotic mowers, dominated by the Swedish company for more than a decade, is growing at 15 times the rate of conventional mowers, and that’s attracting rivals. Auto parts giant Robert Bosch started selling robot mowers last month, after both Deere and Global Garden Products Italy entered the market earlier in 2012. Honda Motor will join the fray next year. “It’s still a niche market in Europe as a whole, but it’s growing so fast that in some countries it’s now starting to be a mainstream segment,” says Henric Andersson, head of product management and development at Husqvarna. “In some markets, it may be as big or bigger than regular mowers.”

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 U.S.

So far, manufacturers are focusing on Europe, where robotic mowers have gained traction in Germany, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. Now, robo-cutters account for 6 percent of the value of all lawn mowers sold in Germany, according to Alexander Theile, senior marketing consultant at GfK Retail and Technology. Across Europe, robo-mowers will be a roughly $170 million market this year, up 30 percent from 2011, says Thomas Olsson, head of Swedish operations at Global Garden Products.

Husqvarna rolled out the first robot mower in 1995. Today it has six models under the Automower and Gardena brands, which can groom yards ranging from 400 square meters (4,306 square feet) to 6,000 square meters (about 1.5 acres) for some of the larger rigs. Outside Europe, it sells the mowers mainly in Australia and New Zealand.

Robo-mowers use sensor technology to stay within a defined area of a yard and are typically able to avoid obstacles such as trees and lawn furniture. The cutters can even reverse direction when they bump into an inquisitive pet. Some, like Husqvarna’s, move in random patterns. Others, including Bosch’s, follow distinct lines. Robo-mowers don’t collect the cut grass; their clippings are so small they break down quickly and act as fertilizer. To keep the clippings tiny enough for such composting, the rechargeable machines are used more frequently, often daily. “Our research shows that one of four garden owners dislikes mowing the lawn,” says Bosch spokeswoman Karin Heinlein. “In principle, all of them could be converted to use robotic lawn mowers.”

Husqvarna brought robo-mowers to North America in 2001 but retreated a year later after discovering that the availability of cheap landscaping services in the U.S. made Americans less interested in the pricey devices, Andersson says. Also, North American grass is generally tougher than European turf, making it difficult for the finer blades used on the robotic devices to work effectively, he says.

Even in Europe, high price tags may limit robo-mowers’ success. Most machines retail for around €1,700 ($2,205)—far more than electric walk-behind mowers, which typically cost €300 to €900. Once prices come down, says Husqvarna’s Andersson, the market will become mainstream: “€1,000 may be a magical line for the customer,” he says.

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