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Sink Into Inventory and Services to Attract Plumbing Pros

Independent retailers put great emphasis on providing fantastic customer service. When done correctly, this focus on making every customer feel welcome can yield great dividends across the spectrum of DIYers and pro plumbing customers.

There’s a reason we all crave that special treatment. The little extras might not even come at a high cost, but being placed among the most valued patrons of any business promotes a sense of loyalty that is tough to replicate.

For professional plumbers, this MVP treatment is often seen in the form of streamlined services, helpful merchandising and expert sales staff that can allow them to get what they need and get back on their rounds. Plumbers, like any professional tradesperson, are always on the clock. Given their busy schedules, earning their loyalty can be just as much a matter of being the convenient location as it is having the right prices.

Hardware Retailing spoke to two retailers who put an emphasis on their plumbing department with the focus on streamlining the purchasing process for busy professionals.

Retailers can learn how pricing strategies can position a store as the go-to location for plumbing supplies, how inventory management is factored into buying decisions and what merchandising tactics work best for pros.

In Greencastle, Indiana, Headley Hardware has built a reputation for having inventory numbers that rival area wholesalers and for pricing so competitive that plumbers from counties all across the western part of the state travel to access great deals. This combination allows the store to garner a following with contractors and plumbers.

Solenberger’s True Value Hardware in Winchester, Virginia, has staffed its plumbing department with a pro team of employees who can serve as an expert sounding board for plumbers on the move. On top of supplying everything a plumbing professional may need on the job site, the knowledge available during a visit to Solenberger’s adds value few big-box retailers can match.

Headley Hardware owner Randall Jones (right) says his use of house accounts and pricing strategies allows his business to thrive with tradespeople. In plumbing, Jones strives to make the buying process as easy as possible for pros.

What a Pro Wants
Professional tradespeople have job requirements that set them apart from average customers. Most retailers who see a significant portion of their sales from pros know how to manage their accounts, keep their shelves supplied and merchandise their stores so busy contractors can get what they need and get back on the job site.

Professional plumbers can be a bit different than other tradespeople. Because they handle so many different products, from pipe fittings to electric water heaters, they require a diverse set of products, tools and supplies on a daily basis. They also handle designer products like faucets and shower heads, which require the ability to be technical with their skills while also preserving the aesthetic quality their customers want in a finished product.

In order to best serve professional plumbers, Headley Hardware owner Randall Jones has focused his plumbing department on not only having almost every kind of plumbing supply his professionals might need, but having enough of it that a plumber will never be forced to walk out of his store without every tool, pipe and fitting they require.

From having large quantities of inventory stocked within the plumbing department to extra pipe lengths stored out of sight to most customers, Headley Hardware has plumbing supplies that Jones says can rival most plumbing supply warehouses.

This focus on plumbing has made the department one of the most important for Headley Hardware, with the 15,000-square-foot store ringing in about $75,000 in sales each month in plumbing products and supplies.

“We’re never going to lose out on a sale because we don’t have what they need or enough of it to get them back on the job,” Jones says. “We had a fire in 2000 that led to us rely on our contractor customers and area businesses to reshape the business and restock items they needed. We still use their feedback as a guide for how we need to build inventory and bring in products.”

Depth of inventory is also crucial for Solenberger’s True Value Hardware, says owner Patti Solenberger. After the recession of 2008, much of the building market in western Virginia transitioned to national building chains as their source for building supplies.

To counter that trend, Solenberger’s Hardware treats its plumbing business like a wholesaler would and has enough supplies on hand to cater to any plumber or tradesperson needing plumbing supplies.

Solenberger’s True Value Hardware emphasizes the knowledge of its employees like (from left) Kenny Whitacre, Scott Glover and Phil Dehaven.

“We have great plumbing professionals in our department who do our ordering and can talk even seasoned plumbers through different jobs and tasks,” Solenberger says. “Our challenge is to source products that can handle both large and small jobs. We look to have enough product selection and inventory so a contractor looking to buy mass inventory will look to us, but we also want the exact item a homeowner wants to fix their bathroom sink.”

Headley Hardware’s local building market doesn’t have enough building and plumbing professionals to support its inventory, but that’s why the business looks to attract professionals from well beyond the county line, Jones says. Having been involved in the Greencastle community since 1954, the business has gained a healthy word-of-mouth reputation from customers.

Headley Hardware employees are trained to look at the relationship with professional tradespeople, like plumbers,
as a symbiotic one. The pros are often familiar enough with the store and its offerings that they can track down products in the quantities they need even when sales associates are busy with other customers. Fostering this kind of in-it-together atmosphere is what earns repeat business, Jones says.

Plumbers know that Headley Hardware in Greencastle, Indiana, will have not only the fittings and pipe lengths they need, but enough in stock to supply their latest job site

Jones says allowing plumbers full access to his store, from the salesfloor to receiving areas where overstock items can be found, helps foster a customer base that feels like Headley Hardware is home base. Since the pros have such open access and can take matters into their own hands— like collecting the pipes they need themselves instead of an employee being tasked to retrieve them from a storage area—they feel the store is actively helping them complete their jobs.

“We treat our professionals like what they are: People who know what they’re doing and what they need,” Jones says. “We’re great with DIYers who might have questions we can help them with, but most plumbers are coming into the store with a list and details already set. They know what they want, so we make it available and try to do our best to get them on their way.”

Both width and depth of inventory is key. Headley Hardware (top) and Solenberger’s True Value Hardware (bottom) diversify their plumbing selections.

Price is Right
Investing in plumbing inventory allows you to sell a diverse set of supplies, and luckily, professional customers are reliable buyers.

Headley Hardware keeps its prices low in categories favored by tradespeople and local businesses to encourage customer loyalty. The business has access to this pricing strategy through its distributor. These prices have been proven to be most successful in the plumbing, electrical and paint departments and allow Headley Hardware to lower prices while increasing margins on products that can be bought in bulk.

“Our ‘cost-plus’ pricing on commercial and professional accounts lets us compete for plumbers’ business with wholesalers in larger communities in our immediate area,” Jones says. “We’re very aware of how we price these items and how we treat our professional customers. By pricing items this way, we take the word ‘discount’ off the salesfloor. Pros know they’re getting the best price.”

Jones says over 65 percent of Headley Hardware’s total sales come from house accounts with area tradespeople. By supplying professionals with discounts and credit lines, Headley Hardware’s team can rely on these businesses continuing to choose their store for their plumbing purchases.

The pricing strategy used for pro-centric departments plays into an overall philosophy Jones uses for certain departments, including plumbing. As a result, Headley Hardware has seen leading sales across multiple departments in recent years, with plumbing and paint being two of the top departments. Jones says his philosophy has made his business a go-to option across a wide range of products and services.

“Any products that contractors and our local factories have a need for, we treat like a commodity,” Jones says. “By that, I mean we price those products at a point that sells itself to the customer while also allowing us to make a necessary margin. When you combine that with the depth of our inventory, it makes for an attractive package.”

A strategy Solenberger’s Hardware has used to retain plumbing professionals is its plumbing sourcing strategy. In addition to its regular orders, Solenberger’s Hardware sources about 10 percent of its plumbing inventory from another independent distributor and uses drop-shipping extensively.

As a result, the business continues to diversify its product selection and has products on hand that other retailers and wholesalers might have to special order.

Service, knowledge and a staff willing to work with busy tradespeople like plumbers is important for any retailer hoping to earn consistent business from professionals. Pricing strategies available from distributors can also help.

“We keep a very tight rein on our inventory numbers, particularly in plumbing. It’s such a key part of our business that we want to know exactly what we have and how we can get it to a customer,” says Phil Dehaven, plumbing sales associate and buyer for Solenberger’s. “Having multiple sources for these products, and working closely with vendors through drop-ships, means it’s not an issue to reorder a rare piece of equipment or get a requested item.”

Making the effort to enhance your inventory beyond the expected product mix can have long-lasting benefits for your reputation and future sales. For Solenberger’s, their extensive plumbing selection and history of stocking hard-to-find items mean many of their sales come from customers who have already visited a big box.

“Some of our best referrals come from chain big-box stores,” says Scott Glover, a plumbing sales associate for Solenberger’s. “Our assortment of products goes well beyond theirs.”

Having a well-stocked and deliberately merchandised store can be a boost for customers’ productivity. Given how often plumbers are looking to get what they need and get back on the job, catering to their needs is often about treating them like the busy tradespeople they are.

“We consistently hear that we are the reliable place for supplies and we know how to sell plumbing products,” Jones says. “You need a box or several of a product? We know how many come in each box and we have them on the shelf or in the back ready to go in your truck. And you’re going to look at the price and see we’re not trying to con you. We want you to come back next time you have an emergency, and we’re going to be just as helpful.”

Regarding Retail

Talk to your distributor’s sales representative to develop your pricing strategy and take advantage of bulk pricing opportunities to pass on to your professional customers.

Want some more info that can help your customers conquer their plumbing problems? We asked a plumbing pro to share his tips on diagnosing common issues with a water heater.

Watch the video here!

About Chad Husted

Chad is an assistant editor for Hardware Retailing magazine. A Purdue University graduate, Chad has covered sports and news at the high school, college and Olympic levels as a sports writer, editor and designer for multiple newspapers. Prior to joining the NRHA, he was the sports editor for the Herald Journal in Monticello, Indiana, and a designer and copy editor for the AIM Media Indiana group in Columbus, Indiana. When not cultivating his beard, he enjoys backpacking, cooking, traveling and watching too much sports and Netflix.

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