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Well that’s a question that needs to be examined a little closer. Let’s get one thing out of the way, if you care to do some research and you know exactly what you want or need you can find it cheapest on-line. However buying on-line is not without its headaches. Who are you buying from? Where is your material made? Who do you go to if the product is defective? Let’s look at each type of store and examine their respective strengths and weaknesses.
BIG BOX – We hear it all the time and it’s true to some degree, consumers can buy most fixtures that are stocked cheaper at the Big Box stores than most plumbing contractors can buy them from their supply houses. A contractor will buy Kohler, American Standard, Toto, etc. from a supply house at 40% to 45% off of the MSRP for everyday purchases. The Big Box stores will offer those fixtures for 5% to 10% better.
If you are a consumer and you’re looking for material to do a simple repair on a water line or a fixture repair the big box store should have what you need. They carry basic plumbing rough-in material (rough-in material is literally plumbing material that is installed on the rough-in of the project. Behind the wall waste vent and water piping, in-wall shower valves, underground waste, etc.)
Their pricing on common items is very good, however once you get out if the 1/2″ 90s and 3/4″ couplings you have to watch what the prices will be. They are, in the end a retail store with “loss leaders” and myriad ways to make a profit.
The Big Box store can usually order any piece of fixture or trim out of the the manufacturers catalog. Make sure you look up the list price and model number before ordering, this is an area where a professional supply house may be able to help.
LOCAL HARDWARE STORE – No offense to any well stocked hardware store but they should be used when you are in a pinch. Not many true hardware stores move enough plumbing material to be able to buy the product like any of the other options. Therefor it’s hard for them to compete for pricing.
Hardware stores like Ace or True Value do buy some cheaper lines of faucets and fixtures that maybe exclusive to them or private labelled that are pretty durable and very competitively priced. Again most plumbing professionals wouldn’t choose to buy from here on a day to day basis unless we were forced to because of the situation but you should have no issues with the store standing behind a product.
INDUSTRIAL SUPPLY HOUSES – This is a complex description because these store are extremely useful. When you buy from an Industrial Supply House your purchases are priced almost entirely at a discount level established by how much you buy collectively.
Don’t expect to walk into a Grainger and buy water heaters at pricing you’d see at a Professional Plumbing Supply House, E-Commerce Site or Big Box Store. These stores have small mom and pop maintenance contractor accounts and massive corporate accounts that buy everything from cleaning products to water heaters.
These locations are fantastic for buying repair parts for flush valves, faucets, water heaters, a few fittings or any tools you may need on the fly. They can order almost any repair part and by and large they have it some where in their extensive distribution network. The product guarantees are strong because their relationship to the manufacturers is strong.
Bottom line they collectively buy a ton of product. BTW if any rough-in materials or fixtures are needed in large quantities they can be bought at competitive pricing from these stores However using the Industrial Supply Houses is just not practical for buying everyday plumbing supplies.
PROFESSIONAL PLUMBING SUPPLY HOUSE – We are going to give you the basic details of how these stores work and their how their relationship works between the store, consumer/contractor and manufacturers rep. Here is how the professional supply chain works and it’s important to understand this process as it relates to final product pricing. There is a supply chain structure in the previously mentioned but it is quite a bit loser than in it is with the plumbing supply houses.
- MANUFACTURER – They make or import the products plumbers or service providers install. i.e. Kohler, Moen, Delta, Hansgrohe, Grohe, Toto, Brasscraft etc.
- MANUFACTURER’S REP – The manufacturer hires a local marketing rep to push their products to architects, engineers, wholesalers and installers. These reps usually market other plumbing or plumbing related products. The manufacturers rep usually makes 5% to 10% profit on the gross sales of a particular product. This companies not only market the product but handle any warranty issues that arise. Contractors love this arrangement because they have a direct conduit to the manufacturer in the event of a product failure. Most are given a 30 day contract and can be terminated without notice.
- PROFESSIONAL PLUMBING SUPPLY HOUSE/WHOLESALER – They buy the different products marketed by the manufacturers rep and sell to the end user.
We’ll explain things a little further with regards to the various rep agencies, there have always been a few manufacturers that don’t believe any rep firm can market their products better than they can so they have factory sale people to market the product regionally.
With the current collapse of the construction market it is becoming more commonplace for companies to try to sell the products themselves. The verdict is still out on which way is more affective. We tend to believe that a rep firm with multiple sales people can put their finger on the pulse of a market better than a regional manager covering several states. However Moen for example has used factory sales reps for quite some time and they do it very well, so there are exceptions to that statement.
E-COMMERCE or ON-LINE PLUMBING STORE– Which brings us to our final mainstream place to buy plumbing wares. There are so many stores to choose from it’s hard to keep track. As stated previously if you know what you want you can really save yourself some money.
It’s accurate to say that quite a high number of on-line stores have a physical supply house behind the e-commerce sight. So there is relative safety in buying and if you buy from Amazon or Ebay you have the full weight of their umbrella. So why would a supply house sell their product on-line? The answer is why wouldn’t they? It’s just another avenue to sell more product.
Quite a few of these stores have become evolved to become niche stores specializing in a certain products like Sloan flush valve parts or Chicago Faucet repair parts or drinking fountain parts. These offer a specialized niche and allow for slightly higher margins.
Recently companies have formed to do their business entirely on-line, their entire business model is based on-line. Some of the manufacturers have begun embracing the model and by-pass the manufacturers rep completely. As you may have already guessed this saves the manufacturer and consumer money. Some people have issues with this arrangement because you are buying from a faceless entity. It is inevitably up to you to decide.