OK, admit it. You shop there. I do. I am willing to bet that most of the people reading this column right now shop there. Where? The Big Box. Why? Price, selection, convenience, location.

I doubt that many HVAC suppliers like to hear those words in a competitive market, especially when each reason takes away a few of the normal customers and puts a dent in the cash flow. Yet despite the negatives of what the Big Box stores represent to the HVAC distribution trade, there are many HVAC contractors who are regular shoppers at the stores that boast cavernous aisles and end caps featuring loss leader products designed to bring customers in and hook them into buying other products with higher margins.

In some towns across the U.S.A., the Big Box store has become a cultural phenomenon where locals gather nightly to browse the aisles and meet with neighbors, sipping a soda and downing an ice cream bar available in the lobby of the store.

I know, I make it a point to visit some of these stores when I am on the road - to witness that very thing. But I also like to see how many HVAC trucks and vans are parked outside, too.


I suppose if contractors wanted to be really coy about shopping at the Big Box they would encourage their employees to use an unmarked vehicle to make the purchases. After all, a homeowner might get the wrong impression if they see an ABC Heating & Cooling truck at a Home Depot a few minutes before ABC is supposed to be installing a new boiler in their basement. But then again, maybe the homeowner really doesn't care where their contractor buys the parts. Fair enough.

However, I am sure that the local supply house has more than a passing interest in what the contractor's installer or tech is buying (while munching on a hot dog, also available in the lobby of the Big Box). And it's not like this type of buying activity is something that is a temporary blip on the supply chain radar screen. A contractor buying from the Big Box stores is something that is here to stay. Don't kid yourself.

But don't fret either - not yet. If you harken back to my reasons why people shop at the Big Box, you will see a word that is conspicuously missing: service. I admit that some of the stores employ workers who have good backgrounds in HVAC, plumbing, electrical, or the construction trades. But the really good workers are still in the trades and not waiting on the weekend warrior do-it-yourselfers.

The tech or installer who is in a hurry to pick up a fitting or carton of sheet metal screws usually doesn't care about service anyway. They want to get the product and then get out and to the jobsite, sans good service. That type of sale is not going to kill a supplier. Therefore, it's OK to see some trucks out front if the workers are just looking for a quick part.


I'm not going too far out on a limb by saying that all contractors appreciate good service. That usually comes through established relationships and trust. You can't find that type of relationship between a local supplier and a national chain of Big Box stores. It just doesn't exist.

As long as suppliers continue to offer good, reliable service, the Big Box threat is something that can be kept under control. And notice that I haven't mentioned the support that suppliers give to their contractors through continuing education and marketing/advertising assistance. Try finding that from an orange apron.

So, it is OK if a few HVAC contractors' trucks are spotted daily parked in front of the Bog Box stores. These were the same trucks that were parked in front of the mom-and-pop hardware stores a decade ago. It didn't hurt the HVAC trade then, did it?

We'd like to know your opinion. Until July 15, The NEWS will continue to run an online survey of buying trends at Home Depot/Lowe's or any other Big Box. Please visit our home page at www.achrnews.com and look for the survey in the left column. I'll report the results and your comments later this summer.

John R. Hall, Business Management Editor, 734-464-1970, 248-786-1390 (fax), johnhall@achrnews.com

Publication date: 07/10/2006