All tradespeople love tools and many are passionate about the tools they use on a daily basis.
The tool category is intensely competitive and both tool manufacturers and distributors need to employ smart strategies when it comes to selling, marketing and promoting these products. Experts from several prominent IMARK tool suppliers and IMARK member distributors shared their perspec-tives on trends and opportunities in the tool segment along with some tips to help IMARK distributors maximize their share of this important product category.
IMARK Now: What are some of the most important factors driving the development of new tools for electricians and electrical contracting firms?
Chad Christy, account manager, Echo Group Inc., Council Bluffs, Iowa: “Made in the U.S.A.” is becoming more important to our consumers. Several of our vendor partners have recently announced an emphasis on “Made in the U.S.A.” I feel that if given the choice, our customers prefer a tool that’s made here at home. Other factors include innovations in technology (e.g., app-driven platforms, Bluetooth-compatible products, etc.), performance, ergonomics and durability. How contractors or electrical contracting firms make decisions regarding their tooling needs is a rather complex equation today— distributors and vendors who know and communicate the best value for specific customer needs and have a keen understanding of how customers use their tools is a key factor behind a successful business relationship.
Mike Raygor, marketing director, Echo Group Inc., Council Bluffs, Iowa: While product cost and “Made in the U.S.A.” are definitely important factors, I also think contractors appreciate the ability to carry fewer tools—e.g., having one tool that takes the place of multiple tools.
Alan Frakes, vice president, North America Sales East, Klein Tools, Lincolnshire, Illinois: Innovation for tradespeople is the most important factor, as are tools that are made to stand up to the demands of the contractors who use them every day. Multi-function tools are also becoming more popular, as more functions in one tool increase space in the tool bag or belt and save trips to change out tools, thereby increasing productivity.
Mark Champney, key account manager, Burndy, Manchester, New Hampshire: Installers want tools that work well, not just when they’re brand new but 10 years down the road, and won’t tolerate tools that continually break, underperform or otherwise impair productivity. They also want tool manufacturers to stand behind their products with a good warranty and qualified, hassle-free repair if the tools require service. Other factors driving innovation include safety (ergonomics), value and quality, which often equate to “Made in the U.S.A.” We’re proud to say that the vast majority of Burndy tools for the electrical industry are designed, built and serviced in Littleton, New Hampshire.
Walt Opalach, product manager, electromechanical, United Electric Supply, New Castle, Delaware: Everything coming out now revolves around making end-users more efficient. “Safer, faster and easier” is a phrase coined by Greenlee Tools and it really does apply. Electrical contractors are experiencing a labor shortage and they need to find ways to be more productive with fewer people. Manufacturers have heard that cry and are producing tools that address those needs.
Paige Bovard, group product manager, electrician’s tools, Milwaukee Tool, Brookfield, Wisconsin: Enhancing productivity is our key focus in the development of new products, as today’s market is increasingly competitive. If we see an opportunity to improve an electrician’s day through a product’s performance or design or by simplifying a process, we’ll give it serious consideration.
IMARK Now: Please describe some aspects of tools that today’s users are most passionate about.
Christy (Echo Group): Power tool manufacturers are gravitating towards more compact and efficient platforms —for example, brushless motors are the new norm in most cordless power tools. These tools now allow for considerably longer run times, increased power/torque, and potentially more efficient use of power in the batteries which fuel them. Incorporation of new electronic innovations in these tools also introduces a means for connecting these tools digitally to online-based inventory management systems and performance-related information that the industry has needed for quite some time. Electronic clutch and braking features help prevent injuries to the user much quicker than previous generations of tools. Overall, power and hand tools today have a considerable number of bells and whistles to sell and it makes it interesting and enjoyable to discuss these options with our customers.
Raygor (Echo Group): Customers care about comfort and speed—if there’s a tool in your pouch that you use over and over, it’s important that it’s comfortable and feels right. If that tool also has a feature that makes it a little faster to work with, that renders it more efficient as well.
Frakes (Klein Tools): Tradespeople are most passionate about the durability and performance of their tools. Our customers are also passionate about “Made in the U.S.A.” tools and we’re very proud to be an American manufacturer with eight facilities in six states.
Champney (Burndy): When we speak with our electrical contractor customers, the reliability and safety of products in the field are the two aspects that come up most frequently. Contractors are also happy to have help on application of the tools from a knowledgeable support team, as well as tool repair service, which is a critical component of the “after-sell” support that contractors look for from manufacturers.
Opalach (United Electric): End users need tools that are safer, lighter, faster, more ergonomic and can do multiple jobs (e.g., cutting, crimping, stripping, etc.), but even so, there’s still a little bit of the “cool” factor that goes into the buying decision. Manufacturers that can produce tools that deliver on all the “safer, faster, easier” components and can still throw in the “coolest” look or best appeal will win the customer.
Bovard (Milwaukee Tool): Our users are passionate about tools that are designed specifically for their application rather than a one-size-fits-some format. Whenever we have a unique solution that makes an application easier, improves performance, ergonomics or safety on the jobsite, we have passionate, loyal users.
IMARK Now: What are some of the attributes and/or activities defining distributors who you consider to be bestin- class marketers and sellers of tools?
Christy (Echo Group): Best-in-class distributors are actively engaged in selling tools. The attitude has usually been that power tools and some hand tools were not something electrical distributors could make money selling. However, gross margin can be very rewarding if a distributor is willing to put the right products in their inventory and take part in special buying programs with the tool manufacturers (all of whom usually publish a Minimum Advertised Price Policy (MAPP)); that level will certainly be more rewarding than a spool of wire from a percentage standpoint and cost much less to handle and service as well. Managing inventories can also be very challenging, but it’s not a good enough reason to stay away from the sales potential that tools afford an electrical distributor. Best-in-class players listen to what their customers want, why they want it, when and where they want it and how they want it packaged/ delivered, and also communicate that back to vendors/manufacturers so that they can be a part of the overall sales solution.
Opalach (United Electric): Selling tools isn’t an easy proposition—everyone has them (electrical distributors, plumbing/HVAC distributors, big-box stores, Amazon, etc.) and everyone carries many of the same brands. If not promoted, tools can fall to the back burner of our customers’ minds and they’ll most likely look online and buy what they need at the cheapest price or possibly at a local store if it’s convenient. Best-in-class distributors proactively engage customers when it comes to selling tools, beginning with well-trained salespeople who understand the features and benefits of each product and why those will be important to the end user, followed up by strong marketing and promotional activity.
Frakes (Klein Tools): Best-in-class players stock all of the new tools introduced and proactively engage the customer at the counter to make sure they understand a new tool’s unique application, features and benefits. Strategic distributors use marketing funds to proactively feature new SKUs and reward the end user for making the purchase, as well as take advantage of the new omni-channel consumer who shops online and in brick-and-mortar stores.
Champney (Burndy): Distributors who are successful in selling tools inventory those tools. Yes, stocking tooling products can be expensive for the traditional electrical distributor—at times, a single SKU can account for $3,000 to $4,000 in on-hand inventory with less-than-desirable returns. However, there are distributors who have embraced the stocking and promoting of tooling products, which often earns them recognition as the go-to distributor in a specific market for “all things tools.” In addition, best-in-class players help train customers on the value and operation of a manufacturer’s tools.
Bovard (Milwaukee Tool): Distributors who listen to the voice of their customer, uncover needs and position solutions to help them where they’re focused have seen great success in their markets. This is especially true of distributors who focus on positioning premium products and presenting them as an investment rather than simply pitching a product at a price.
IMARK Now: On the flip side, what are some common things distributors fail to do that result in missed sales opportunities for tools?
Christy (Echo Group): Distributors fail when they’re unable to answer questions like, “Do you have it?” and/ or “When can I have it?” If a customer continues to call us for their needs and experiences a pattern of no, they’ll soon find an alternative solution in the form of a competitor who’s proactive rather than reactive and finds a way to tell them yes.
Frakes (Klein Tools): Distributors fail when they don’t create a “retail” environment for the tradesperson at the counter and don’t take advantage of online opportunities to engage with customers who may be trying to look up information or purchase online.
Champney (Burndy): Distributors lose sales by failing to engage the local salesperson when an opportunity presents itself. In most cases, a highend tool isn’t going to be sold over a supply counter or over a phone call to an inside sales rep; these often need to be demonstrated to a potential customer and, at times, Burndy will loan a tool to a potential customer so that they can evaluate its performance themselves. Also, distributors miss opportunities when they fail to recognize that when connectors are sold, a tool is being used. Even if there isn’t an immediate need for tooling, chances are there will be and this contractor should be a mutual target for a joint sales call and some training.
Opalach (United Electric): Among the biggest misses is not providing distributor salespeople with the education they need to sell new tool products. If distributor salespeople can’t sell the customers on the features, benefits and, most importantly, why it will help the customers in jobs, they’ll lose orders to Amazon, Home Depot or other electrical distributors. There’s a misconception out there that the bigbox stores are less expensive because they “buy in volume,” but in many cases the items they sell aren’t the same quality we provide and customers need to know that.
Bovard (Milwaukee Tool): When distributors are focused on doing business exactly as they have in the past, that can result in stagnancy. Distributors who have a clearlydefined plan that includes a focus on identifying new opportunities are the ones we’ve seen experiencing the most success.
IMARK Now: Finally, please share any insights regarding best practices in merchandising, training and promotion that IMARK members should consider when it comes to selling tools.
Christy (Echo Group): Make sure you keep your showroom updated, clean and inviting with a good showing of current products and new items highlighted. Something that’s worked for us is putting a MAPP next to the item on display so that customers can make a mental decision about the price without any sales pressure. Ongoing training for salespeople and customers is also key; distributors who invest in opportunities to train their customers and employees will build relationships that are not easily broken. Continuing Education Credits are always something of value and don’t necessarily need to be “freebies”—some customers and employees see greater value in things they’re expected to also invest in (just be sure to calculate the cost before extending the offer). Regarding promotions, we’re all inundated with rewards programs and promotions from places we frequent and this approach is valuable for distributors too as long as the programs are simple, effective, scheduled and professionally executed. “Tool of the Month” is something that could be easily implemented, but it has to be uniform and consistent throughout your organization; manufacturers can help with the correct sequence if there’s a pattern you’re trying to follow that will build towards a greater end result. Finally, actively communicate promotions locally, remotely and through websites and social media sites and frame them within “While Supplies Last” timing so there’s a sense of urgency to the buyer. leads to future opportunities.
Raygor (Echo Group): It’s important to have a large display area that has lots of hand and power tools that customers can touch and feel supported by literature highlighting the products’ features and benefits. Have point-of-purchase displays featuring the most popular tools, especially “new and improved” models.
Frakes (Klein Tools): Make sure that displays are neat, clean and easily shopped by application and also train counter staff on new tools and how to engage contractors with those tools.
Champney (Burndy): Recognizing the potential for damage or theft inherent in merchandising high-demand, highcost tooling, Burndy created a unique merchandising system for our distributors. Rather than investing thousands of dollars in product to display in front of the counter and occupying a large amount of floor or wall space, we created a “Tool Card” system of merchandising on a 2-foot display with a header. Each card contains a picture of a tool, all relevant specifications and performance and Burndy contact information. Customers can review the card and take it to their salesperson for further demonstration and discussion.
Opalach (United Electric): Training salespeople is a critical means of keeping customers aware of the latest tools and technologies. Customers like to touch and feel tools, so we have all of our tools on display in our showroom and try to remerchandise them every year or two; many times, just changing the display draws a customer’s attention back to the tool area of the showroom (if they’re locked up or out of reach, they won’t sell). As for marketing, we utilize traditional email campaigns and flyers, but complement those with website promotions and social media posts to continually inform our customers of new products. Additionally, I believe one of the best ways to get customers to buy tools is to bring the tools to them. Joint sales calls with the tool and distributor reps demonstrating the capabilities of these products, swinging special deals and just showing them that you’re concerned about the success of their business go a long way in getting the order. We also do a unique event at United that we call a “Tool B Que,” which is basically a barbeque with burgers, hot dogs and drinks that we bring to a particular customer’s shop/office. We have five participating tool vendors that bring all of their new and exciting products to display, we offer special pricing on those products for the customer and we have prizes and giveaways for all of the customer employees in attendance. We’ve been doing this for a few years now and customers really appreciate the effort we put into it for their employees; at the same time, our tool sales shoot up dramatically as we hold these events.
Bovard (Milwaukee Tool): The key to merchandising, training and promotion with IMARK members starts with developing mutually agreed-upon plans with your local rep. There are multiple right answers when it comes to merchandising, so agreeing on the most valuable use of the space is critical before investing in the set and later evaluating its success. Additionally, I’d encourage all members to engage their rep with both internal product training, as well as external co-training events with end users. We’ve seen many of these events result in a continued relationship with the customer that