Big box or not to big box?

As a contractor, do you big box? The mere question opens a can of worms, and often times a heated debate. “It’s bad for the industry.” “You are hurting your local wholesalers.” “You're putting product into the hands of unqualified people such as DIYers for installation.” “How are warranties honored?” These are tremendous questions to be asked, but let’s be honest, do you run to the local box store if you’re in a pinch?

Last month at Comfortech I had the good fortune of sitting in on the Industry Leadership Forum, which featured five notable manufacturer presidents, executives and CEOs: John White, Jr., president of Taco, Inc.; John Galyen, president of Danfoss North America; John Warner, director of sales for Laars Heating Systems; Craig Johnson, president of White-Rodgers; and Gary Michel, president, Residential Solutions for Trane/Ingersoll Rand gave the audience their unique perspectives on the industry.

An interesting question was raised during the forum that related to my opening question regarding big box stores: What are your plans for expansion into big box stores such as Home Depot and Lowes, or your plans to work with utility companies to sell products? Are contractors part of those plans?

According to John Warner, Laars, “No, no, and no. And with the sophistication of the products that are coming out now, with high efficiency stuff, the box stores have no idea what the hell’s going on with respect to that. That’s going to help our entire industry in making sure we have a professional contractor installing our products. To me that’s good. I really feel very strongly that with all the training we do as manufacturers for contractors, I think the whole effort will support bringing out those new products, and making sure the consumer understands they need to have a professional contractor install.”

On the contrary, however, Gary Michel, said, “Yes, yes, and yes. Trane was the first to sell products through HD and Lowes. It comes back to where customers want to buy product. The third question was, “are contractors involved in the process?” and the answer is absolutely yes. So if a homeowner working on home improvement wants to buy from a big box store, we need to make it available. But behind that is a contractor who is helping to size the system, install it and service it. Nothing we do with a big box store excludes the contractor. They are right there behind the HD and Lowes sale to make sure it happens in that market. It’s a very effective program, and we have to understand this is where consumers are going to buy their products. We talked about training and being vigilant. We need to ensure that if that’s where the customer wants to buy the product, we make it the best, consistent, and most superior type of transaction it can be. And ensure the product will work in the home. That’s where the contractor does play into that partnership.”

Can’t we come to agreement here? I agree wholeheartedly that suppliers and wholesalers are a vital part of the supply chain process, especially in this industry. I have seen first-hand the perils of trying to do something yourself either by hiring a friend, handyman, family member, or even attempting something on your own because you watched a YouTube video.

Qualified professionals need to be hired to do plumbing and mechanical jobs. Plain and simple.

So I got to thinking about this back and forth on the viability of big boxes. What if certain, itemized merchandise from these outlets require a licensed contractor to obtain possession? So let’s say Mr. Johnson decides to go purchase a circulator for his home. Fine. He can purchase it but he isn’t allowed to bring it home. He has to notify his contractor of choice to pick the product up with the idea that this contractor will actually install it; this upholds the warranty because the hope is that it will be installed by a licensed professional.

Loosely based off purchasing a firearm. I know, loosely. Technically, you can’t purchase a gun without being a registered user with a FOID card. In this instance, homeowners can purchase the product at the big box store, but possession of certain products can only be picked up by licensed contractors. Hopefully, this brings in more localized residential business for contractors.

Perhaps this is a crazy idea. Again, I understand that supply houses aren’t too fond of the big boxes, but they aren’t going away, soon anyway. Why not try to leverage some more possible business for contractors?

Thoughts?

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