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Is It Stupid to Buy Home Products Online?

Home Products OnlineMy builder got a phone call from a lighting wholesaler. He was distraught when he found — after reading this blog — that I was purchasing a good portion of my lighting online. He said we were making a big mistake.

His response was not unlike that of the plumbing wholesaler who learned I was buying a bunch of my plumbing online. One subcontractor went so far as to say that online fixtures — with identical part numbers — were inferior to the fixtures he could buy. Only when Sam pointed out that would be fraud and said he would call the online sellers did the guy back down from his claim.

The industry line is that buying products online won’t be warrantied by the subcontractor doing the installation. I don’t mind this condition so much, because in my experience the warranties aren’t worth much. (Just try to get a tradesman to accept responsibility for a failure a few months after the install without charge.) And I must remind you that we had a pretty lousy experience with premium products. But mostly, it’s really bad business.

It doesn’t build much confidence when a tradesman indicates that he can’t tell a good product from a shoddy one upon inspection and not even after installation and testing. While there is something to be said for finding reliable suppliers, sticking to a single, local supplier with a large markup doesn’t serve a tradesman or his customers. The old-school model of hiding profit in the materials markup — when pretty much anyone can get discount prices online — just looks like a deceptive and less-than-transparent way to bid a job.

The world has changed in the last decade and the construction industry — with it’s low-tech culture — is way behind the times. “Wholesale pricing” isn’t magical. More to the point, it’s no longer exclusive. I bought most of the plumbing and lighting for our last custom home. Seven years later, the number of people online has sky-rocketed. It’s no longer a secret.

My suggestion: Subcontractors would do well to incorporate this into their business model, rather than cling to an outdated one. Use the pricing and convenience of internet shopping to add value to your customer’s service experience, rather than threaten not to give them full consideration. A positive referral is worth more than a bucketload of paid advertising.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Sheri Alo July 24, 2010, 8:36 am

    As I’ve worked with builders while selling real estate I can vouch for builders hiding profits when clients are choosing lighting, flooring, upgraded countertops, etc. The prices they charge for appliances, upgrades and other choices are usually very inflated. You are so smart to take it upon yourselves to do the research, find the products that work for you and then purchase them online. this is pretty much thes same thing that most homeowners do when making home improvements themselves. You have simply cut into the (sub)contractor’s profit margin and they don’t like it much.

  • Garret August 10, 2010, 10:13 pm

    I bought a lot of things for my condo online. Better prices than a regular store. These people need to get up with the times.

  • Dennis Steele February 16, 2011, 3:48 pm

    I really don’t think it is stupid, but I would recommend viewing a spec of the product before making a purchase. That way, you can get a better feel for the dimensions to confirm that the product is a good fit for the space you are trying to fill.

  • Alison Moore Smith February 16, 2011, 4:36 pm

    Good advice, Dennis. Thanks for the input.

  • White Card Tasmania March 16, 2011, 1:01 pm

    I agree, most home builders charge you with almost everything from floor tiling, ceiling to all the tiny details.. then they’ll give you a cost breakdown with an inflated value. That’s not really a good sign of investment. If there’s such a thing called online home builders, I would totally hire them. LOL

  • Alison Moore Smith March 19, 2011, 11:30 pm

    Daniel, the funny thing is that a great percentage of these folks see themselves as honest and ethical. Of course, some don’t care, but most would sincerely be taken aback if they were called dishonest.

    The biggest problem, in my opinion, is that the construction industry has something of a foundation in depending on the ignorance of the customer. They expect that you:

    • Don’t have access to the products, so can’t compare prices
    • Don’t know that they are stringing out multiple jobs
    • Can’t fight their demands because they have power to lien your house
    • Can’t find anyone more reliable anyway

    It’s one of the most inefficient industries I’ve ever worked with. If we ran our engineering company that way, we’d have been out of business years ago. :/

  • Daniel March 19, 2011, 11:17 pm

    It sounds like you’ve had some really negative experiences with contractors, especially in terms of trustworthiness. If you find that a contractor is huffing about you finding a cheaper price than he can provide, it is probably a sign that you should find a different contractor. After all, it’s the same product, as you say.

    Certainly, there are some good contractors out there who won’t do this. It’s just a matter of finding them.
    Daniel recently posted…Recessed Lighting Spacing- Finding Just the Right Measurements for Your RoomMy Profile

  • Mary Martinez June 10, 2011, 5:12 am

    Although warranties are seemingly worthless, but I can be a vital role in instances of outrageous occurrence happens. All am saying is that, we tend to neglect those simple small things, but chances are we will regret at the end coz we failed in taking that sort of thing into consideration.

  • Steve September 21, 2011, 2:00 pm

    I think as long as you know what part and model number you’re buying, it really shouldn’t matter where you get it from. Its the same product.

    Now, if you’re buying something that you’ve never seen in person, then obviously, you’re taking a greater risk because you can’t touch or experience it. In any case, most online retailers offer some sort of a return policy anyways.

    If you’re saving money and shopping with a trusted online store, I say go for it!
    Steve recently posted…Low Water Pressure in FaucetsMy Profile

  • Steve September 21, 2011, 2:03 pm

    I think as long as you know what part and model number you’re buying, it really shouldn’t matter where you get it from. Its the same product.

    Now, if you’re buying something that you’ve never seen in person, then obviously, you’re taking a greater risk because you can’t touch or experience it. In any case, most online retailers offer some sort of a return policy anyways.

    If you’re saving money and shopping with a trusted online store, I say go for it!
    Steve recently posted…Plumbing Question 376My Profile

  • Alison Moore Smith September 21, 2011, 2:55 pm

    Good point, Steve. It’s best to be sure you know what you are buying first. Thanks for dropping by.

  • Serena October 13, 2011, 5:04 am

    Buying home products online is not like that you have done anything silly as long as you buy it from a renowned online stores. Make sure that you are dealing with the right person.

  • Hamza November 17, 2011, 4:08 pm

    I think this is just natural.Most of the traditional businesses feel threatened by the rise of ecommerce and online retailers.But from point of view of a consumer this is a good thing because online retailers have played a big role in making almost every industry more competitive and providing things which are cheaper.And I agree with you Alison there is no such thing as a guaranteed service .I’m yet to come across a tradesman who is willing to repair something they installed even a few weeks ago without any kind of payment involved.
    Thanks for sharing this

  • Chach November 29, 2011, 7:05 am

    Ms. Moore:

    Amen to your article! A natural working FREE market only benefits the best businesses AND the customers. Using online suppliers make the subconcractors, and ultimately the builder, charge less and add value to his product/service and the customers get’s more for their money.

    This is a great opportunity for a business man to heed your advice and run with it. And, like you say, there’s no better form of advertising than word of mouth. It’s cheap, it’s eternal, and it’s powerful!

    BTW, how way your Cyber Monday:)

    Happy Holidays!
    -C
    Chach recently posted…Best Plumbers In Honolulu TipsMy Profile

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