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Big Box

The Great Debate: Big Box Or Distributor?

September 20, 2012

Price is — it has been and likely always will be — king.

Product purchasers want to get the best deal when they are paying for goods.

But, what might seem like the best deal to someone — tools and equipment at the lowest possible price point — is not always the best value to others.

This is because there are several elements that factor into the peace of mind of transactions.

"In the constant battle of the big box store versus the distributor, the two most common factors that enter the equation are price and availability, which generally draws the uninformed customer to the big box store until that inevitable reality sets in," says Bill Held, president of HJS Supply Company.

Shopping solely on price can be a dangerous route, as low costs are often achieved at the detriment of great customer service, extensive product warranties and add-ons such as training and consulting.

While it is not a constant — certain product offerings buck the long-held axiom — in most cases, you get what you pay for.

In light of this notion, those procuring goods from big box retailers are less concerned with selection and customer support and more focused on low price points.

Conversely, those who rely on distributors for their supplies find worth in the expertise of their merchants and the value-added aspects provided after the initial sale.

I am not saying that one outlet is inherently superior in every instance; both have their pros and cons and, depending on your requirements, each can be a solution to your needs.

Why Buy From A Big Box?

Carrying a large assortment of products, big box retailers are, for the most part, quick and convenient.

For consumers and professional purchasers alike, the expedient "grab and go" nature of big box stores allows shoppers to acquire necessary merchandise and get on with executing other tasks.

And, given the increasing popularity of private labeling products for sale under a big box umbrella, the pricing of goods can be rather competitive.

"If a customer knows exactly what product they need, a big box can provide immediate access along with an aggressive price," explains Ed Rossi, president of DAWNCHEM Inc. "However, just like any other sourcing process, price comparisons are still important: Just because the product is at a big box does not automatically mean it is a better price than that of a distributor."

Another strength of big box retailers is that they generally have extended hours of operation.

Given the nontraditional hours worked by many cleaning and maintenance professionals, this means that precious minutes or even hours do not need to be carved out of your daily docket to visit a distributor.

"Big box stores are usually open late, and customers can swing by after normal business hours to pick up a thing or two," asserts Guy Cordell, Jr., vice president of Ridley's Vacuum and Janitorial Supply. "At the same time, they can pick up everything from personal groceries to painter's tape to a vacuum at a big box store."

According to Michael Wilson, marketing director for AFFLINK, purchasing from big boxes is fairly easy: You merely make a selection from available stock or place an order and it arrives in a day or two.

But, today's businesses expect more in terms of value, and their demands are often unmet with big box retailers.

"Good luck having someone at a big box store tell you why you should use an ultra-high speed pad versus a conventional one or the correct dilution ratio for heavy-duty restroom cleaning," jokes Cordell, Jr.

Big box retailers do one thing: Sell product in a purely transactional relationship without a single point of contact who understands the unique needs of your business.

"If you are looking for anything beyond the product, such as training or service support, you are better off identifying a true partner for your business — someone who can help anticipate your needs and keep your operation running smoothly when your attention is focused elsewhere," muses John Engel, senior marketing manager of facility services for Cintas Corporation.

When You Should Deal With A Distributor

If personalized solutions are what you need, you should look past big box outlets and focus your sights on reputable JanSan distributors.

According to Wilson, companies who purchase from distribution channels get more than the right product at a competitive price.

"They get the knowledge and expertise of a professional on how to properly use that product, advice on alternative products to better solve their problems and a dedicated resource that goes beyond simple delivery," proclaims Wilson.

While a big box outlet may be a convenient choice for one-time purchases, there are drawbacks to buying with expedience.

"Aside from a lack of personal care and no service department, keep in mind that big box stores carry everything from A to Z," notes Held. "How can they possibly give special attention, follow-up service or warranty care when spread so thinly?" Another shortcoming of big box outlets, and a place where distributors stand scores above their consumerism counterparts, is value.

Distributors are adept at consultation to identify the unique needs of each client and, as referenced by Rossi, servicing the needs of the JanSan industry is about much more than just selling a product or service.

While such offerings often carry a higher dollar amount, and final price notwithstanding, a distribution partner that understands your operation and is willing and able to make unbiased, informed suggestions is invaluable.

"Savvy distribution partners are great at uncovering opportunities that increase productivity, enhance a company's image, promote a healthy workplace, decrease total costs and satisfy sustainable objectives," asserts Wilson.

These sorts of add-on services are part of the overall value provided by JanSan distributors, something big box retailers simply do not have the bandwidth to offer.

Distributors have a wealth of product and application knowledge developed over many years of working with manufacturer's representatives and frontline professionals.

"We concentrate on providing personal attention to customers' needs and provide on-site training, inventory control, staff development and, of course, problem solving," concludes Rossi.

By foregoing the industry-specific expertise and cordial service of a distributor, you very well could find yourself flying solo through the clouds of cleaning capitalism.

Held quips, "You are really on your own if your decision is the big box route."

Some Suggestions For Selecting A Supplier

A professional opinion weighs heavily on a customer and can be the difference between a botched sale and an ongoing business relationship.

When searching for a distribution partner, a customer should consider a number of factors including but not limited to the following:

• Longevity

If a company's doors have been open for a long time, they must be doing something right.

The years of service a company has is generally an indicator of a balance between reasonable prices and good customer service.

Reputation in the industry is key, and poor-performing businesses do not remain viable for very long.

• Knowledge

Employees who are cognizant of product or equipment attributes and can readily explain the particularities of use, care, warranties, etc., can help you make informed purchasing decisions.

Selecting the ideal equipment from the start will minimize future headaches; educated employees can provide such pain relief.

• Follow-up care

Regarding product satisfaction and warranty work, a distributor offering personable service after the sale can ensure that your products, tools and equipment are functioning to your liking and that, in the instance something does malfunction, problems are promptly addressed.

• Hassle-free service

Few things are more frustrating than having to jump through hoops to arrange for equipment maintenance or to setup a new product demonstration.

A distributor with open availability and sufficient personnel to handle all requests greatly reduces the chances that telephone calls will be forwarded to voicemail and issues requiring immediate assistance will be pushed to the backburner.

• Consultation

Adding additional value to customers, some distributors have technicians that go onsite to determine the proper products, tools and equipment for a particular operation.

Because a good distributor wants their decision to be correct and the best value for their customers' dollar, providing consultation to clients prior to purchases is another way to show that they value business.

And, part of that consultation is ongoing training and instruction on each unique product or piece of equipment to ensure complete understanding and smooth operation throughout a product's lifecycle.