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How Do Electrical Contractors Learn About New Products?

By Bridget McCrea

In the electrical distribution world, everyone seems to have a different opinion about how new product introductions are – and should be – handled. For How Good (or Bad) are Manufacturers’ New Product Launch Efforts?, tED magazine spoke to a number of distributors about their thoughts on the issue and in Manufacturers Speak Up on New Product Launches, suppliers said their peace and also gave distributors a few pointers on the steps they can take to help improve the success of new products as they hit the market.

For this third article in the series, tED spoke with a handful of electrical contractors for their opinions on the issue. We not only found out where these end users typically get the information they need about new products, but we also asked them what electrical distributors could be doing better in this regard (read: contractors are giving you tips for earning more business from existing customers!). Let’s look at what they had to say.

Chain of Information
When a new product comes out, Joe Martin, executive vice president at KenMor Electric in Houston, will invariably receive one or more emails from distributors and/or manufacturers about the item. And even in this digital age, Martin says he continues to receive hard-copy newsletters from various sources about new products. His final source of information are the industry trade shows (put on by the Independent Electrical Contractors and other local entities) that he regularly attends to stay “in the loop” in the electrical contracting industry.

Once Martin receives word about a new product that could be an asset for his company, KenMor’s purchasing agent reaches out to the local electrical distributors to learn more. “A lot of times the distributors are aware of the product, but usually don’t know too much about it,” says Martin. “It’s out there being advertised, but the distributors themselves don’t have the answers. They should be more informed so that when someone calls, the feedback and answers are close at hand and ready to share with the contractors.” 

Justine Maglio-Wardell, office manager at Hampton, N.J.-based electrical contracting firm Maglio Electric, LLC, says distributors rarely (if ever) introduce her company to new products. In fact, owner Anthony Maglio, Jr., says the distributor salespeople he works with regularly “don’t offer up any new information about what’s going on in the marketplace.” For that information, Maglio reads magazines like Electrical Contractor and pays attention to the manufacturers’ advertisements rather than spending valuable work time making counter calls to a local distributor or attending vendor-sponsored events.

“If we’re out working, we really don’t have the time to go to the supply house during the work day,” says Maglio. “As a result, we usually miss out when it comes to learning about new and innovative products.” Maglio-Wardell concurs, and says the situation has become even more challenging over the last few years as distributors have tightened up their stocking policies and learned how to work with smaller, leaner workforces.

“There was a time when the salesperson would come visit, sit down, and walk us through a list of products that were coming out over the next few months,” says Maglio-Wardell. “Over time, there’s definitely been a disconnect and those meetings just don’t take place anymore. I’m sure some of the reasoning is economic and based on the fact that it’s just not cost effective to work that way anymore. As a result, it’s very hard for us to find out about new material.”

Satisfied Customers
Not all of the electrical contractors tED interviewed for this article felt left behind when it comes to new product launches. At least two felt that their distributors went a long way in helping them learn about the latest and greatest product introductions. At APG Electric in Clearwater, Fla., for example, Tim White, division manager, says he’s had pretty good success when working with distributor salespeople to find new products that will help his firm perform more efficiently. Working primarily with Graybar plus local firms Electric Supply, Inc., and Mayer Electric Supply, White says all three are generally open to sharing information and stocking items because they know he’s not out shopping around for bargains online or offline.

“These three sources know that we’re only buying from them, so they work with factory reps to introduce new product lines to us, do lunch-and-learns with us, and offer other types of special training (even after hours),” says White. “That’s pretty much how we find out about new products and it works well for us.” White credits APG Electric’s long-term relationships with its distributors as the key to this successful arrangement. “All three of them are very good,” says White. “They’re pretty sharp about making us aware of what’s new out there and helping us gain access to those products.”

Dave Gilson also offers praise for the electrical distributors he works with, noting that they generally go the extra mile to either introduce new products themselves or align with the manufacturer and work as a team to get the job done. “Our distributors bring in a lot of product reps for demonstrations, training sessions, and meetings,” says Gilson, owner of Tera-Byte Technologies, Inc., in Aloha, Ore.

Like the other contractors who were interviewed for this article, Gilson says his first introduction to a new product often takes place at an industry trade show. With technology advancing at the speed of light, Gilson understands that his regular trade show attendance will clearly turn up some innovations that not all distributors will be aware of. “If something was just introduced, distributors may not have even heard of it yet; we understand that,” says Gilson. When he goes back and shares that information with his distributors, Gilson says those suppliers usually go out of their way to find the information he’s looking for and/or arrange joint sales calls with manufacturers.

“The distributors may not know about the product themselves,” says Gilson, “but at least they’re getting the right people involved and helping us in the process.”

Now if those distributors were more willing to stock those new products on their shelves for future Tera-Byte use, the picture would be complete. “They’re not always willing to do that for us because they usually want to feel out the market first and see if it’s worth the time, effort, and investment,” says Gilson, “but they will get it for us. In most situations, that’s enough for us.”

Hit or Miss
Bruce Seilhammer, electrical construction group manager at SECCO, Inc., in Camp Hill, Pa., says he uses two primary mechanisms of finding out about new products. He attends trade shows and reads the weekly email blasts sent out by manufacturers and distributors. “Occasionally,” he adds, “a salesperson will bring in something new for us to test out, but otherwise it’s mostly trade shows and email.”

When asked what electrical distributors do to keep him informed about new product introductions, Seilhammer candidly answers, “Not a whole lot.” He says the salespeople he buys from could do a better job of simply stopping by once in a while to say, “Hey, here’s what’s new and what’s happening in the market. Check this out.” And would Seilhammer be open to trying out of some these new innovations if they were presented to him? “Of course,” he says, “anything that’s new and innovative is key to our operations – especially if there’s labor savings involved.”

For Greenway Electrical Services, LLC, in Apopka, Fla., getting the inside scoop on new products that are coming onto the market is largely a game of hit-or-miss. “Some distributors are better than others at keeping us in the loop,” says Michael Duffield, company manager and service manager. “Collectively, none of them are very strong in this area.” Duffield, who points out that he’s overall “very pleased” with the service, response, and products that his firm gets from electrical distributors, says new product launches is one area where they could all do a little better.

“I can’t brush all distributors with one stroke,” says Duffield, whose firm works frequently with Graybar and Mayer Electric Supply. He says smaller, regional outfits tend to be more agile and flexible. “They can make decisions without having to go through a lot of red tape, but are also large enough to have purchasing power. Size and prowess aside, Duffield says few of his suppliers keep him well informed of what’s new and exciting on the market.

“I get most of my information through manufacturer-generated direct mail and email from companies like Eaton and Schneider Electric,” says Duffield. “I also read the new product profiles in our industry magazines.” At some point, Duffield would like to see his own research efforts augmented by distributor sales calls. “The distributors aren’t on their game when it comes to this. If they would utilize sales calls as a mechanism for sharing this information with us, it would be a plus.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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