Bonus column: Get a handle on hand tool sales

By Gary Thomas

Each year, tED’s “Annual Branding Study” identifies the products most commonly carried by its readership. According to our most recent survey, 90% of electrical distributors report the sale of hand tools. That said, it should come as little surprise that hand tools do not make up a large percentage of distributors’ business. In fact, many distributors estimate that hand tools represent less than 10% of sales, with margins wedging between 20% and 30%. Additionally, most electrical distributors would not deny that non-traditional, discount oriented competitors (e.g. “big box” retailers and online vendors) have captured a large portion of today’s hand tool sales.

Photo gallery: Get a handle on hand tools 

Price is universally mentioned as a key factor in deciding which tool brand to buy and from which source, but professional electricians rarely rely on price as their only criteria. Gary Cowenn of Cowen Electric in Elgin, Ill., pointed out that comfort, labor savings and ease of use are three key features that precede price when choosing hand tools. Josh Hundley of Mills Electric in Bellingham, Wash., agreed that price is important, but he emphasized that safety and durability can’t be sacrificed for the sake of a lower cost.

Shawn Courtney, branch manager for Granite City Electric, Springfield, Mass., echoed the importance of safety and quality and added that, in certain product categories, “brand” may be the determining factor.

Safety First

From the tool design engineer to the job site electrician, safety products and practices top the list of work related issues. But defining the many shades of “safety” is somewhat ambiguous and provisional.

Government agencies, manufacturers and unions all caution electricians not to work on “live” circuits.  But, as reliableplant.com points out, there are times when working with an open circuit is required, e.g. when computer systems or medical equipment cannot be de-energized. Though not a perfect solution for such conditions, manufacturers offer insulated hand tools (e.g. screwdrivers, pliers, wrenches, crimps, strippers and cutters) that perform a variety of functions.

Manufacturers clearly identify insulated tools by coating them with an orange layer of insulation over a yellow layer of insulation and marking them with the official international rating symbol. Insulated tools provide a secondary protection but should never be considered as the primary barrier.

Hand tools that are used often and necessitate recurring motion may also be considered potentially “hazardous” because of possible nerve stress caused by prolonged, repetitive flexing of the wrist. For those not suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), this painful nerve damage may be considered inconsequential. Yet for those who must endure the resulting pain, CTS falls within the “health and safety” category. In an effort to minimize the likelihood of muscle fatigue or wrist stress, hand tool makers have added design features such as contoured grips with cushioned handles to moderate fatigue and textured grips for a firmer grasp and stronger torque.

Using the wrong hand tool is a leading cause of on-the-job injuries. Antidotes are common about screwdrivers being used as pry bars or wrenches used as hammers.  Maria Schierscher, product marketing lead specialist for Phoenix Contact (phoenixcontact.com) noted that electricians can accidently cut a wire or themselves if they attempt to remove the jacket of a multiconductor cable with a utility knife. She emphasizes that a wire stripper specially designed for that purpose is not only safer, it is more effective.

John Fee, senior product manager for Greenlee (greenlee.com), stated that many of Greenlee’s product concepts and modifications are the result of electricians’ direct inputs regarding safety and tool applications. With local distributors, Greenlee representatives routinely visit job sites to observe and discuss products and applications with working electricians. Fee says that safety product improvements, even new products, are frequently the outcome from these visits.

A Recipe for Sales

Electrical distributors are already in the market; they know it; they live it. Electrical contractors are existing, repeat customers. Hand tools are a known product category, and all of the ingredients for a successful sale are present—just add enthusiasm and serve:

1. Understand the customer

  • Electricians are professionals; they will pay for quality/durability
  • Proven brand names are important
  • “Safety” trumps “price”

2. Go the extra mile

  • Exceed expectations; earn the business/support—the customer’s and the supplier’s
  • Employ trained/knowledgeable counter staff 
  • Customers expect breadth/depth inventory

3. Sell the features and benefits

  • Safety first (insulated tools, ergonomic design, safety glasses, gloves)
  • Match the tool to the task
  • Labor savings
  • Durability

4. Train, train—and train some more

  • Outside reps and counter sales—require hands-on; experience the “benefit”; lunch and learns; webinars/videos With manufacturer, co-sponsor “Tool Night”. Focus on new electricians.
  • Emphasize “tool for task” and proper uses
  • With manufacturer, offer co-training workshops for apprentice electricians

5. Master merchandising

  • Make products visible/hands-on
  • Promote “impulse” sale (usually less than $25 each)
  • Let electricians use credit card for personal purchases (online vendors now getting this business, after-hours)

6. Beef up your website

  • Show link to manufacturers’ websites
  • Feature new products specifically applicable to electrical contractors and list the features and benefits for all tools. n

Gary Thomas is principal of glt & associates (gltworkshops.com). He can be reached at 203-209-9072 or gary@gltworkshops.com.

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