Volume 45, Issue 9 - November/December  2006

HARDSCAPES

An Outdoor Opportunity
Distributors See Stronger Demand for More Outdoor Products
by Samantha Carpenter

Is demand for outdoor products increasing? Many homeowners have an outside deck, porch, fence or other structure, and if they don’t, they may plan to build one in the future.

According to MarketResearch.com, U.S. demand for decking is projected to advance more than two percent per year through 2009 to 5.6 billion board feet, valued at $5.9 billion. The research firm also says that alternative decking materials will continue to lead the decking market in terms of yearly gains through 2009, but wood will remain the dominant material used in building decks.

With these kinds of statistics, it makes sense that more building supply distributors and dealers sell an outdoor products line.

Steve Pitman, general manager of the Lumber Barn of Bradford, N.H., says his company has distributed pressure-treated wood since 1988. Its line of outdoor products has evolved since then to encompass mahogany, cedar and composite lumber as well as composite deck and rail systems, pressure-treated landscape beams and rail road ties.

Dave Rubischko, sales manager for Shelter Products Inc. of New Ulm, Minn., (not affiliated with SHELTER magazine) says his company has been selling TimberTech decking for eight years, and it has grown about 25 percent every year, taking away from the treated wood and cedar.

“It’s just the sign of the future,” he says.

Amerhart of Green Bay, Wis., has been distributing pressure-treated lumber for outdoor products for nearly 40 years. While the company sells pressure-treated lumber, cedar lumber as well as Trex railing and decking products, it recently added Iron Woods Decking, stocked in ipe and jacoba for higher-end decks, to its product mix. 

“Iron Woods has been fairly good. It’s not like you put the inventory into the dealers’ yards because it takes a little bit more to make a sale,” says Ken Hager, vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s a higher-end sale, but when you get a sale, it’s extremely lucrative. You don’t get them every week.”

No Immunity from Challenges
While statistics show a high demand for decking and other outdoor products, selling these products isn’t without trial.

Rubischko says there are lots of obstacles to selling outdoor products. 

“There are 40 other composites out there if not more—all wanting a piece of the pie,” he says.

Pitman says that weather was a big challenge for his company this year. “This spring with all the rain set us (Lumber Barn) back considerably.”

Like Lumber Barn, Amerhart also faces weather challenges.

Since it distributes to the upper peninsula of Michigan, Amerhart runs into snow problems during the winter months.

“It’s difficult to get those products in there. And then you are really starting [to distribute them] in April, May and June,” he says.

Deck builders have their set of challenges too.

Bill Holmes, president of Texas Custom Decks & Outdoor Living of Round Rock, Texas, says he faces a number of challenges, including a lack of qualified people, weather-related delays, damage to clients’ lawns, cleanliness of jobsites and consistent quality in wood products.

Training Truths
Training employees and customers can also be a challenge for distributors, dealers and deck builders.

Pitman says his vendors are very happy to help train his salespeople. 

“We are [also] supplied with samples, literature and displays to aid in selling,” Pitman says. 

“Training is never-ending,” says Rubischko. “We try to get in front of our customers’ contractors and talk about the features and benefits of composites.”

Amerhart doesn’t just train its buyer of outdoor products; it also trains its staff.

“We want to train them in what the product is and what the features and benefits are, how it’s going to [compare] to the other products out there,” says Hager.

“The key to it is getting the counter people and the outside sales people at the lumberyard to understand that they can sell higher-priced products.” 

He says that in the wood business, everyone seems to gravitate towards wood because it’s easier to sell.

When you get into composites, you are talking about something that sells for about 30 percent more. That’s difficult for them (lumberyard employees) to grasp, and that’s our job—to train those people, so they know how to sell higher-priced, value-added products.

Holmes says he has found that manufacturers and distributors offer limited training.

“We assign our new associates to a motivated, quality-conscious lead person and have them work side by side until we are confident of their understanding of quality, safety and client relations,” he says.

Holmes says he would like to see manufacturers and distributors offer regional onsite training, Internet-based training, certification for installation of their products, better sample programs and better quality promotional materials.

Sell This Product
If you are a distributor or dealer thinking of selling outdoor products, Pitman urges you to get into it gradually.

“Visit trade shows, stay current with the newest [products] and see what your neighbors have bought.”

“I think it’s a great niche business, but you have to focus on what you are doing, especially in the higher-priced products,” says Hager. 

Rubischko says jokingly that other dealers and distributors shouldn’t sell outdoor products.

“Stay out of it because I don’t want the competition,” he says. “It’s a great product and it’s a sign of the future. You see more and more of it everyday. If you go to open houses, you still see a lot of cedar decks, but in the upper-end houses, they are showing composites and that seems to be what people want.”

Samantha Carpenter is editor of SHELTER magazine.

SHELTER
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