Volume 46, Issue 2 - March 2007

Face Off

Whenever Chris Ray visits smaller lumberyards, he knows what to expect. Ray is the owner of Christopher Ray Inc. in Mt. Ida, Ark, so he’s familiar with the products, the owners and the people at lumberyards in his area. And, he likes that there aren’t any surprises.

“I know the smaller companies’ employees on a first-name basis, and I can cut up with them,” Ray says. “The discount stores have a delivery driver that I may have met once.”

In a climate where there are so many choices, knowing everyone on a first-name basis can help a builder and contractor decide where to spend their construction budget. But there are many other factors in the buying decision, including lead time, return policy and, of course, price. Both big-box retailers and lumberyards offer distinct advantages. Choosing where to shop depends on the customer’s needs.

A Need to Serve

The local lumberyards seem to be winning the popularity contest, but why? One word: service.

“The personal attention we receive from each and every member of the Davis Hawn Lumber team [in Dallas, Texas,] cannot be beat,” says Jeff Van Buskirk, president of Heritage Construction in Dallas. “From sales to inventory to delivery to billing, they really understand customer satisfaction, which is a great comfort level.”

Jack Lenz, owner of U.S. Homecraft of Glynn County, Ga., prefers the local lumberyard/specialty product suppliers because they give personal service and have product knowledge.

Jack Kurek, owner of Kurek Designs of Woodbridge, Ct., agrees with Lenz.

He also fancies his local lumberyard because he says the people there know what they are selling, plus they give free jobsite delivery. 

“If I discover a need on a jobsite, I can call in an order for 25 2 by 4’s to the local building-supply store and within an hour or two, it will be there,” says Ray. He says that if he calls the same order into one of the big-box retailers, they will tell him they only deliver in his area on certain days, which forces him to wait on the order.

Lumberyards also take defective products back. 

Experienced Employees

“If I have any boards that are split or buy something that is broken, my local lumberyard, Ridout Lumber, takes it back without any problems,” says Billy Hightower, owner of H&H Builders in Conway, Ark. “Whether I am working for a big contractor or small, they always give me the same discount or price.”

Jeff Healey, president of Healey Construction of San Diego, frequents local hardware stores and local specialty contractors.

“I get to know how they operate and what they can deliver,” he says. “If they don’t perform, I find another that can.

”There also seems to be a consensus that lumberyard employees know the lumber business better than their big-box counterparts.

Larry Cohen, president of Premium Home Crafters of North Potomac, Md., sees the quality of employees at the big-box stores decreasing. He blames this on the big boxes trading full-time employees for more part-time employees.

“At one of the big-box stores, I had one guy I knew,” Cohen says. “He was a carpenter by trade, and he wanted to get into kitchens. They gave him a week of training and gave him 20-20 Design™—a kitchen design software program—and put him on the floor. This can’t compare to a full-service lumberyard, where you have a certified kitchen designer with more experience.”

Ray likes dealing with the same people all the time—another reason to shop at the local mom-and-pop building-supply store. In fact, he can communicate directly with the decisionmakers there.

“A lot of the time the owner likes to deal with the bigger contractors,” Ray says.

Van Buskirk agrees. 

He thinks the big box has an issue with chain of command when the quality of product is lacking. 

“With the individual lumberyard, any questions of quality go straight to the top and are handled without delay and to our satisfaction, but then we rarely have to question the lumberyard’s quality of product,” he says.

Finding A Place

Since their induction into the market, the big-box retailers have gained more and more market share. You only have to look as far as the news headlines to see a local lumberyard or building-supply store that has closed its doors, saying it can’t compete against local big-box competition.

While the media often ridicules the big-box locations, they have a concrete place in the market and their share of fans.

Donald Kearney, owner of Topflight Services of Parsippany, N.J., purchases most of his building products at Home Depot out of convenience. 

“Where I live in Northern New Jersey, they seem to be on every street corner, almost like corner delis,” he says. “Also, their return policy is phenomenal. Although I don’t do it for what I consider to be ethical reasons, if you buy moulding by the foot and have one foot leftover, you can return it. Also, they’re open late at night, so valuable daylight time isn’t wasted shopping.”

Wade Mills does most of the contractor work on the resort he owns in Battle Lake, Minn., and he usually buys his big-ticket items from Home Depot.

“Credit is so easy at Home Depot,” Mills says. “It is a major reason that we buy there. We plan long in advance for projects and purchase when promotions are on.” Recently, Mills used a 10-percent off, no-interest until 2008 credit card on a purchase of $3700, which saved him $370.

Peaceful Coexistence

Builders and contractors say the market needs both the lumberyards and the big-box locations.

“Products are good in both places; you just have to know your markets,” Mills says. “I like my hardware man and not having to drive [25 miles] to Home Depot, but on the other hand, Home Depot offers a selection that the hardware store doesn’t.”

Cohen agrees there is a need for both types of businesses.

“The big-box stores keep the lumberyards honest as far as price,” Van Buskirk says. “You can go to them [the lumberyard] and let them know there is a two dollar difference, and they’ll come down on their prices. Sometimes they [the lumberyards] don’t have the margins, but they do it anyway to keep your business. I like the Home Depots because they have everything. If you need a door knob and a 2 by 4, you can pick them up in one visit.”

“I think the weekend warriors will continue to go to the big boxes and the contractors will continue to go to the small mom and pop-type stores,” Ray says.

For any customer debating which store to use, Ray offers one piece of advice.

“If you can put it in your buggy, you can save some money in the discount stores,” Ray says. ” Otherwise, you’ll create a headache.”

Van Buskirk concurs. “If you just need one or two things, I understand going to Home Depot or Lowe’s. If you are doing a whole house, then you have to go through the lumberyard.” 

The Sky is the Limit

Builders and contractors often find themselves in a pickle when working on a construction project. 

“I had a situation when my lumberyard sent out porch flooring, kiln dried and treated, and it shrunk up more than it was supposed to,” says Jeff Van Buskirk, president, Heritage Construction of Dallas. “When I told the lumberyard, they gave it to me for free. On another occasion, I ordered some doors from my lumberyard and the sticker on the door was different than what I ordered out of the catalog. The supplier didn’t let the lumberyard know the catalog had changed. They [the lumberyard] took off half the cost for the interior doors.”

“At the end of the job, you can collect the lose materials, and the smaller mom-and-pop-type building-supply companies will take them back and give you credit … That can amount to several thousand dollars,” says Chris Ray, owner of Christopher Ray Inc. of Mt. Ida, Ark.

Special with a Capital “S”

Even track homes have special orders. Builders and contractors agree that if a special order needs to be made, then make it at the local lumberyard.

“At the big-box stores, you typically don’t deal with the same person twice,” says Chris Ray, owner of Christopher Ray Inc. of Mt. Ida, Ark. “After you place an order at the store with one person at Lowe’s, you’ll call back about the order, and you will talk to someone else.”

“I find that if I do a special order, I would rather do it at a lumberyard than a Home Depot or Lowe’s,” says Larry Cohen, president of Premium Home Crafters of North Potomac, Md. “At the big box, they don’t know what’s going on. Unless there is one person I know really well, I get lousy service. It costs me more, but time is money too. Although some people tell me that in more rural locations, Home Depot and Lowe’s are giving better service.”

While Home Depot and Lowe’s handle special orders, Jeff Van Buskirk, president, Heritage Construction of Dallas, says they make you pay for it up front. “Let’s say you want to order five door units, you have to pay for them up front,” he says. “At the lumberyard, you pay for it when you get it.”

“I rarely special order anything at Home Depot,” says Donald Kearney, owner of Topflight Services, Parsippany, N.J. “They never seem to get it right. Prices are lower [at the lumberyard], the millwork rep knows what he’s talking about and my last purchase of French doors saved me $1,500 over the Home Depot price and was delivered free in one week after placing the order.”


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