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The Expert

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I have a little something to get off my chest, and what better place to do that than my very own blog.

On occasion I’ve written about the sale of woodworking tools and what I perceive as a failure of the manufacturers to market and sell those tools on a greater scale. For the most part if you don’t have a dedicated woodworking store in your region you will more than likely have to order the majority of your woodworking tools from the internet, sight unseen in a sense. I firmly believe that if woodworking tools were more readily available in a retail, in stock, off the shelf setting there would be more sales and quite possibly a greater interest in the hobby of woodworking. Now, maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the people who manufacture and distribute woodworking tools have already done the prerequisite marketing studies and have determined that it’s not a feasible scenario. Maybe. I don’t know; I don’t have that inside information. But that’s not really what I want to talk about.

When I wrote those posts there were people who disagreed with what I had to say. I have no issue with that. My opinion is not infallible. But some, in subtle and not so subtle ways, basically implied that I know absolutely nothing about it, and therefore I should keep my mouth shut on the subject.

I don’t often speak about my job on this blog. Most of you think I am an electrician. That is true, in a sense, but I haven’t been a field electrician in some time. I work mainly in the supply side of the industry. Part of that job is the purchasing and sale of tools.

For a time, I ordered the entire line of tools for my company. I ordered from every major manufacturer at least once a week. I’ve sold tools to everybody from electrical contractors, to manufacturing facilities, to tool rental companies, to townships, to ski resorts, to nuclear power plants. I’ve been involved with the marketing of those tools. I’ve helped professionals chose the correct tool for the job. I’ve said before that I hate to call myself an “expert”, but in this case, yeah, I’m an expert.

In ten years of dealing with tools as a professional I’ve learned one, unequivocal fact: an in-stock tool sells far, far better than a tool that needs to be ordered. No, I’ve learned two unequivocal facts: a tool that is on display sells far, far better than a tool that is not. Wait, here is another unequivocal fact: a tool that can be handled by the customer sells far, far better than a tool that cannot be touched.

I’m not going to get into the theories concerning the decline of the hand tool, or the decline of the local hardware store etc. I’ve covered that before. That being said, here is another fact I know: If woodworking hand tool and power tools actually had the small market share that most woodworkers seem to think it commands, most of the three dozen or so dedicated woodworking tool manufacturers would already have gone out of business years ago. On the contrary, it seems that more and more makers are springing up every month.

So in my expert opinion, woodworking tools would sell better, and woodworking as a hobby would benefit greatly, if quality woodworking tools were sold at the retail level. You may wonder if I’m such an expert, why do I not know the reasons behind this seeming lack of retail availability. Maybe I do, or at the least I have a very strong opinion on the how and why, but since it is not my place to question the motives of tool makers, I will keep it to myself. Nevertheless, you can question my opinions all you like, I don’t mind in the least. But in this case, I am an expert on the subject.

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7 Comments

  1. We may well be on the forefront of a massive social change that will drive a woodworking renaissance. I certainly hope so. Right now, I’m so far ahead that it looks like I’m behind. A hoary-whiskered anachronism.
    Some years ago, I was told that for an art gallery to succeed, it needed an accessible population of 100,000. I would be curious how many hand tool woodworkers could be counted in that 100k, and if one could conceivably base a retail effort on such a broad generalization.
    I do know that here (Fayetteville, AR) we are approaching that number in a regional sense (if the Waltons thought we needed a hand tool store, it would be on the Bentonville square…), and the closest Woodcraft store is in Tulsa (100 miles). I have seen several small hardware dealers try half-heartedly to sell tools bought from Robert Larson (I made this comment earlier), even Lowe’s tried it when they opened here 20 years ago. Rose Antique Tools was thriving for a few years, but finally folded following on a death in the family. Most of the woodworkers here are conditioned by now to search the internet rather than buy local.
    I would love to see a hand tool revival happen here, but the retail mindset doesn’t seem open to investing in hand tools, and there are very few young people interested in spending the time to acquire the craft skills, or spend the money to acquire the tools.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think where it all fails is in the marketing. Maybe the Internet has been the death of the brick and mortar store. And at that perhaps it will be like it was a century ago and you will either have to travel to a city to get your goods or order it. It does seem that the retail experience in the small to midsize town is limited to supermarkets, convenience stores, and restaurants. Why does the Internet succeed? Convenience? Partly. But woodworking tool makers seem to think that the only place to market their tools is the Internet or a small handful of specialty outlets. Why? If Klein tools, or Milwaukee tools felt that way they wouldn’t sell a damn thing. They understand that there’s no difference in selling your items at a department store, a home center, or a supermarket. That is where these makers are small time and always will be. And that is why woodworking will always be a fringe hobby.
      Thanks
      Bill

      • I have been in a lot of old hardware stores, used tool dealers, and specialty stores such as Highland Hardware and Hida Tools. The ones who survive seem to cultivate a niche market, and make customer service a priority.
        After the recent death of my friend Matt Ross, dealing with his collection of tools; and at the same time filing suit against a worthless apprentice who has withheld $6k in payment, I have given a lot of thought to the karmic, metaphysical aspect. My conclusion is that woodworking (like music or painting) can be a purely philosophical pursuit, in the same sense that the “perfect ashlar” of Freemasonry is a metaphor for the perfection of character.
        Interesting conversation. Thanks, M

  2. dzj9 says:

    I don’t buy tools much anymore, but I can understand the frustration that someone starting out might experience. Not being able to try out/ test the tool before purchasing it and all that…(Most times you can return it if it isn’t to your liking)
    The tool makers have surely weighed the pro and cons and if selling over the internet wasn’t lucrative, they’d no doubt take the traditional retail path. I’m not worried about them. Looks like they’re doing fine.

    • billlattpa says:

      I realize that the days of shopping locally, or even regionally, for woodworking supplies are long, long gone. I’m sure the tool makers are going quite well for the most part. So why change? As I said, if things were as dire as some writers have led us to believe these companies would be going out of business, and we wouldn’t be seeing an actual increase in makers and brands.
      The traditional path takes time, patience, and capital. It requires outside salesmen, sales reps, and partnering with your vendor. It requires increasing your distribution capabilities. It’s a lot of work that these companies are likely not willing to do. That being said, I get a little pissed off when a few people out there tell me to shut up because I don’t know what I’m talking about. I probably know more about tool distribution, sales, and marketing than every woodworking writer in America. I hate to come off as pompous, I’m just speaking my mind.
      Thanks,
      Bill

  3. ausworkshop says:

    I don’t think that you sound pompous at all, people need to hear this, I’m glad to hear more about what you do in your job. Problem is there will always be a few out there who think they are the experts at everything. I can understand why that would piss you off, it’s probably the reason I will never be able to run a blog, too many armchair woodworkers making comments about people they know nothing about. I wouldn’t be able to put up with it. Especially if they tell you to shut up and that you don’t know what your talking about. Why waste time making a comment like that. We need to discuss these things.

    I’d love to have more hand tools available and on display, the big hardware chains could spend a few Saturdays each year demonstrating and letting customers try them out and the sales would sky rocket in my opinion. Imagine how many people out there who have never had the joy of simply using a well tuned hand plane for instance. They aren’t going to stumble across this experience on the internet, especially if they would never have thought about looking into it as a hobby. Get it out there among everyday visitors to the store and it opens up a whole new market for them. Creating things is part of being human, so many of us today don’t realise this until we experience something that makes it ‘click’.

    Demonstrating and teaching the public the joy of hand tool use would be the greatest thing ever for tool sales in my opinion especially if they are right there available for sale in the same location. Problem is there are probably not enough good teachers out there, especially in the big box stores. They would really have to invest some time and energy into it but I think it could work. It’s all about money and they just want quick results from the smallest amount of shelf space, just like everything these days I guess.

    The point is, if we can’t discuss it openly without negative people dragging us down then it will be even harder to do. Get out there and work wood people! Tell and show as many as you can.

    • billlattpa says:

      Sorry about the late response. I never received a notification of your comment.

      I appreciate the kind words. In regards to hardware chains and department stores demonstrating tools etc on weekends maybe once a month or so, I think that is a great idea. But, it would require a real commitment from the tool manufacturers, including marketing, an outside sales force, and increased stock among other things. Maybe these companies aren’t willing to go so far, or maybe they have all the business they can handle. But when you have “all the business you can handle” and do nothing to increase your status quo, that “business you can’t handle” ends up going somewhere else. In other words, you are either growing or you are shrinking.
      I’ve been at my job for ten years now. Not once has my company or a competitor that I am aware of ever said that they want their sales to be static. The goal of every sales manager in my business is to increase sales. That means increasing inventory, increasing deliveries, increasing our supply chain, partnering with vendors, seeking new outlets for growth. The list goes on and on. I have yet to see one of these tool manufacturers make that commitment on a large scale.

      Once again, I have absolutely no clue as to what goes on at their marketing or sales meetings. Have these ideas been discussed? I don’t know for sure. I have heard stories in which attempts have been made, but vendors asked the manufacturers to increase production and they were refused. I’m not sure whether or not that was or is the case, but it sounds plausible. It’s not my money to spend, I realize that, but I am speaking first as a person who likes to buy tools in particular when I can see them in person, and second as a person who has sold tools and has had dealings with major tool manufacturers for years.

      Like you, I believe that an increased public presence would benefit both the makers and the hobby/profession of woodworking greatly. It may inspire that next generation of woodworkers and teachers. “People don’t like to work with their hands anymore!” I don’t believe that for a second. It’s a cop out. Give them the opportunity and see what happens. For years the tool makers depended on schools to introduce hobbies such as woodworking to kids. That doesn’t happen on a broad scale anymore. So maybe it’s time they took the helm and did it themselves. If you forever sell your tools/pastime in a niche market, you will forever be a niche field, destined to slowly fade away.

      Thanks!
      Bill

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