Volume 42, Issue 5 - May 2007

Small is the New Big
While Plenty of Large Glass Shops Serve the Industry, Small Retailers Remain Significant Players, Too
by David Jenkins

In any industry, it makes sense for suppliers to cater to their biggest clients. After all, these customers typically place the largest orders, spend the most money and have the greatest long-term account potential. While there are plenty of large glass stores with employees in the hundreds and revenues in the millions, small glass shops remain major buyers of glazing products. 

Though smaller shops don’t have the buying power of their larger brethren, most insist they aren’t treated as second-class citizens by their suppliers.

Smooth Sailing
 “They treat me well,” says Dennis Palmer, owner of Crown Hill Hardware Inc. in Seattle. “I think I’m a pretty good account for them for a small store. I don’t have any problems with them at all.” Sean Shipman, owner of Glasshoppers in Albuquerque, N.M., has similar sentiments. “They know their stuff pretty well,” he says. “I can tell them what I need and they’re pretty good about getting it done.”

Most glass shop owners say they have always been satisfied with their suppliers and, in recent years, this satisfaction has only increased as suppliers have enhanced their services. While technological advancements have undoubtedly abetted these improvements, increased competition among suppliers has also played a role.

 “Suppliers bend over backwards a little better for you now; they try to service you better because there’s more competition,” says Ralph Zepke, owner of Country Glass & Mirror in East Longmeadow, Mass. 

This proliferation of suppliers has given glass shop owners more options, which has been especially helpful to those not based in traditionally large markets. Often, glass shops in small markets are at a disadvantage in terms of receiving orders in a timely manner. 

“The whole situation in Las Vegas has gotten dramatically better in the last few years as far as having products available since [more suppliers] have come to town,” says Robert Kelly, owner of Green Valley Glass & Mirror in Henderson, Nev. “That has helped tremendously. Formerly I had to order and it took forever to get products … longer than people really wanted to wait.” 

Rough Roads
What about difficulties with suppliers? What do small glass shops see as the biggest issues? For many there are few complaints. All seemed to view the occasional bungled order as inevitable, and Palmer says his suppliers are always quick to rectify their mistakes. Kelly says that sometimes the blame for these mistakes really rests on the shoulders of the glass shop owners. 

“When it comes to suppliers, if you order it right, you get it right nine times out of ten,” Kelly says. “The people who complain about their orders getting screwed up are the same people who aren’t clear on their order. Suppliers are going to produce what they think you want.” 

Still, when mistakes or delays do occur, owners of small glass shops find themselves in a difficult position. With a limited clientele, they face added pressure to accommodate their customers’ needs.

“Whenever I order my stuff, every once in a while we’ll get a long lead time, which puts me in the middle between customer and supplier,” says Shipman. “It’s kind of like I’m at the mercy of the supplier.” 

Kelly, who says he’s “been around forever,” doesn’t believe that suppliers treat his father-son shop differently from any other glass store, while Shipman admits that sometimes he does feel slighted, due to both the size of his operation and his location in Albuquerque, N.M. 

“I’m a smaller company, and I’m not really in a commercial location, and sometimes getting supplies is hard for me,” Shipman says, who adds that he spends much of his time running around, obtaining the necessary supplies for jobs, whereas owners of larger shops have no problem getting these supplies delivered directly to their doors. 

Tim Koentopp, owner of Prince of Wales Glass in Craig, Alaska, faces even greater challenges due to the location of his shop. “My shop is in Alaska, so it’s hard to get freight on time. Everything has to be barged up to me, and not getting my order delivered on time is a big problem,” Koentopp says. “One time I had to put a customer off two weeks because the supplier had missed the delivery to the barge.” 

Koentopp also says that since many suppliers offer discounts on bulk purchases, smaller glass shops are forced to pay a higher rate than their larger competitors. “The rate on glass is a lot worse because of the volume I purchase,” he says.

Communication Flow
Perhaps the most frustrating problem glass shop owners encounter when dealing with suppliers is when the lines of communication break down. “The worst experience is when you fax in an order and then you hear nothing back,” Kelly says. “You have to call them three times just to get an order acknowledgement, and then there might be another phone call or two just to get a price, then maybe another phone call just to find out when it’s going to be ready.”

Since smaller glass shops have fewer customers than larger stores, customer satisfaction is especially critical. As a result, poor service on the part of suppliers can cost small glass shops dearly.

“Getting a quote promptly is extremely important,” Kelly says. “If a customer calls us in the morning, they think we’re going to call them back the same day with a price. It’s reasonable for them to expect that, but we can’t always get a price the same day from some [suppliers]. That’s my biggest concern: getting quotes from our suppliers in a timely manner because there’s a lot of pressure on us. If we don’t produce a price, the retail customer is going to call around and whoever calls back first with a reasonable price is going to get their business.”

Based on such comments, it’s probably not a surprise that small glass shops use words such as “communication” and “customer service” when explaining what makes a good supplier great. 

Koentopp says he receives phone calls from his top suppliers on a regular basis to see how everything is going. Strong customer service is also important to Palmer, who says that a rep from one of his suppliers stops in to say hello every month and that his supplier has a commitment to keeping prices fair for the smaller guys.“They’ll let you buy a smaller quantity of glass and still give you the rate for a full case,” says Palmer. “I used to have to buy crates—full cases—that weigh tons and bring them through the door.” 

The Future
So what does the future hold for the supplier-little guy relationship? Zepke predicts there will be more of a reliance on Internet-based transactions, with fewer salespeople and less verbal interaction. However, in order for the relationship between suppliers and glass shops to remain strong, communication must remain a top priority. Just as small glass shops base their success on the personal relationships they develop with their clients over time, glass suppliers must also continue to forge and maintain personal relationships with glass shops, big and small. 

Why Be Yellow? 
Does Yellow Pages Advertising Pay Off?
You’d like to have more business, more customers, more money, right? Who doesn’t? Local glass shops may just have a quick, easy way right at that their fingertips to generate more revenue. According to the Yellow Pages Association™ (YPA), more and more Americans turn to the Yellow Pages to solve their glass replacement problems. In fact, according to YPA, the “Glass” headline ranks as the 27th most popular Yellow Pages headline out of more than 4,000, and generates 86 million references a year. 

“Glass dealers have historically relied on print and Internet Yellow Pages to help generate business because of the medium’s high return on investment,” says Larry Small, YPA director of research. “In fact, the average glass dealer’s Yellow Pages display ad generates more than $133,000 in sales revenue annually [according to Knowledge Networks/SRI], ” he adds.

But what do glass shop owners say about advertising in the Yellow Pages? Does it pay off? For the most part, yes.

Ralph Zepke, owner of Country Glass & Mirror in East Longview, Mass., says he receives a fair amount of business from his ad in the Yellow Pages. Tim Koentopp from Prince of Whales Glass in Craig, Alaska, though, says he doesn’t think his ad brings in many customers. Both Zepke and Koentopp agree that good word of mouth is the best advertisement. 

Shipman, whose shop is listed in the Yellow Pages, but not advertised, says he receives more calls from the Internet than the traditional phone directory, perhaps hitting upon a trend for the future.

the author: David Jenkins is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine

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