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My suggestion: Subcontractors would do well to incorporate this into their business model, rather than cling to an outdated one.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.