Over the past few years, I have watched - with great interest - the new offerings by mass retailers. I am talking about products that we normally would not see stocked on the shelves of the Home Depots of this world.

At the same time, I am equally interested in consumer reaction to this ever-growing trend.

In the Chicago area, for instance, two Costco stores recently began selling caskets to shoppers. However, customers cannot load the caskets into their SUVs at the merchandise pickup area. If buyers purchase one of the six available models, priced at $799, it will be delivered to their homes within 48 hours. Buyers also get a 30-percent discount for services at participating funeral homes.

I'm not sure, but I would venture to guess that funeral home directors are not necessarily doing somersaults over this new development. After all, they are the experts in making burial arrangements, part of which include the cost of the casket. This compares to homeowners who buy HVAC equipment from a "big box" store and shop around for a contractor to install it.

This brings me to my second observation: Wal-Mart is now selling condensing units to the buying public in a few test markets. And, Wal-Mart is recommending that a qualified contractor do each installation.

Fair enough, some might argue. Consumers have a choice. What is wrong with that?

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Who knows what else may be in the offing by tomorrow, especially at the rate of mass retailer change. One can imagine the conversations that might be overheard in stores:

Wife: "Honey, did you get that case of cola and the two dozen eggs?"

Husband: "Yes, dear."

Wife: "And what about the ice cream?"

Husband: "Yes, I got the two gallons of vanilla."

Wife: "You know, it's been really warm lately. There's a good sale on floor fans."

Husband: "I have a better idea. I'll throw this condensing unit into the cart. Give me a hand, Junior."

Junior: "OK, Dad!"

Wife: "Let's go over to the office supplies. I want to pick up one of those do-it-yourself last will and testament kits."

Husband: "Sure, dear, and on the way over, let's pick up a couple of caskets, since we are in that frame of mind."

Wife: "OK, honey. Make mine pastel yellow."

The fictional family makes it to the checkout counter, three carts in tow.

Cashier: "Credit or debit?"

Husband: "Credit - and can I get a bag boy to help load these items?"

All Silliness Aside...

Yes, the above scenario is a stretch, but it points out one thing that consumers have enjoyed for many years - the convenience of buying everything under one roof. For many consumers, it does not matter if large items, like condensing units, involve a few "extra steps" - including qualified service and installation.

The point is, even if consumers at Costco or Wal-Mart do not need certain items now, they have a choice they did not have just a few years ago. And, let's face it, those in the HVAC trade have to recognize this fact.

If your traditional customer is being given an alternative to purchasing new or replacement equipment from you, you need to remind them that you are the all-in-one shop and are ready to sell, install, and service the equipment better than anyone else.

If you already do this, consider this preaching to the choir. If you are not doing this, send out a few spies to the mass retailer in your neighborhood and see how many consumers are exercising their freedom of choice.

John R. Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 248-244-1294, 248-786-1390 (fax), or johnhall@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 08/30/2004