As hand-tool manufacturers continue to improve the wide selection of feature-laden tools that enable electricians to work more efficiently, comfortably and safely, they are also improving programs that help electrical distributors generate hand-tool sales.

In addition to the manufacturers that have traditionally offered hand tools through electrical distributors, other companies like The Stanley Works, New Britain, Conn., recently entered the fray with an eye toward carving out a corner of this strong, consistent market. These manufacturers have committed resources to help distributors compete against major retail outlets and industrial supply houses with creative, engaging merchandising techniques.

Hand-tool features electricians want the most. Customer demand for labor-saving, comfort-oriented features is sparking the continuing development of innovative tools that began approximately five years ago. Electricians want ergonomically-designed tools with cushioned grips that fit comfortably in their hands and maximize muscle power transferred to their work. They want tools that offer lightweight strength and durability. They also want tools that provide a wide margin of safety near hot wires and connections.

“Electricians want tools that don't twist or strain their wrist, arm or elbow while getting the job done,” says Gary J. Lalla, marketing manager for electrical construction and maintenance at Greenlee Textron, Rockford, Ill. “Tools with comfort grips and designs that require less strength to operate are popular with older electricians. They're also chosen by many journeymen and apprentices who want tools in their pouch that stand out and are different than those their fathers or grandfathers used.”

Where do electricians buy hand tools? Although electricians constantly rely on distributors for high-quality electrical products and expert advice on how these products function, the majority of electrical contractors go elsewhere to buy hand tools. According to The Stanley Works, in each of the last 10 years, electricians have bought progressively more tools from major chain stores such as The Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart than from electrical distributors. Hand-tool sales for electrical distributors typically amount to 1 percent or less of their business.

“Product theft and low profit margins due to discounting are at the core of most electrical distributors' reluctance to stock and market a wide selection of hand tools,” says Steven Helle, president, Granite City Electric Supply Inc., Quincy, Mass. “Many distributors keep their tools where customers can't see them. They're out of sight and out of mind. That's why they are losing hand-tool sales to industrial suppliers and the big chain stores.”

When tool manufacturers are asked how electrical distributors can increase sales to electrical contractors, the most frequent response can be boiled down to two words: better merchandising.

Electrical contractors agree. “If electrical distributors want to sell more tools, they must do a better job of displaying them,” says Mark Tibbetts, chief executive officer of Tibs Group electrical contractors in Decatur, Ga. “Don't keep tools on a shelf in the stock room where we can't see them. Electricians want to pick up the tools and feel what it's like to use them. Also, an electrician may have just come off of a job. He might see a particular tool on display and realize it would have saved him lots of time and trouble.”

Paul Puleo, president of All Phase Electric and Maintenance in Tampa, Fla., takes it much further: “For an electrical distributor to establish a solid position in the tool market, the company should set up a separate tool department within its operation. And to get my business it would have to provide the same degree of service and expertise that specialized tool distributors give us.”

Tool manufacturers and electrical contractors stress that a key factor to increasing hand-tool sales is for distributors to increase their sales staffs' product knowledge so customers see them as hand-tool experts.

“The sales staff can influence 70 percent of customers' buying decisions at the front counter,” says Glenn A. Morgan, director of sales and marketing for electrical markets at Anglo American Enterprises Corp., a tool manufacturer and importer headquartered in Somerdale, N.J. “It's critical for countermen to remain well informed about the features, applications and benefits of the hand tools they stock.”

Manufacturers are ready to help distributors compete. All major hand-tool manufacturers are very optimistic about the potential for increasing electricians' use of their products. Each is making a considerable investment in product research, design, development and marketing. Each manufacturer can argue legitimately as to why its line of tools provides excellent choices for electrical contractors.

“Leadership firms develop lines of tools with very distinctive design and color themes that enable you to identify them even after the brand name wears off,” says Bruce W. Hartranft, business unit manager for Ideal Industries Inc., Sycamore, Ill. “Their tools' unique shape and feel and exceptional performance make them stand out from all others.”

Tool manufacturers are willing to pull out the stops when it comes to increasing electricians' awareness of their products and generating sales — especially through electrical distributors.

Mark T. Babcock, national sales and marketing manager, electrical products, at The Stanley Works says, “The No. 1 way to move tools is with stand-alone floor and counter displays. We want to make it very easy for electrical contractors to buy their tools from electrical distributors — the place where they often go every day.”

At Klein Tools Inc., Chicago, Ill., Alan W. Sipe, senior vice president of sales and marketing, says, “Electrical distributors have lots of imagination and come up with great merchandising ideas. We like to customize our promotions to suit each distributor's program. We'll contribute our fair share of money, prizes and displays.

“Distributors should maintain inventory and keep their place of business clean and attractive. When electricians buy hand tools, it's usually a personal purchase. It's for their own use and the purchase comes out of their own pocket. They want to buy from a place where they're comfortable and receive good service.”

At Rockingham Electrical Supply, Newington, N.H., the company's seven distributorships rely on traditional point-of-sale floor and counter displays to provide day-to-day hand-tool marketing. “Once a display sells out,” says Jim Pender Jr., vice president and director of purchasing, “I move on to something else. We show our customers a lot of new products that way.”

Larry Doughty, vice president, marketing, at CLS Inc., Hartford, Conn., explains that the distributorship's 13 New England locations bring hundreds of customers together during tool nights where they see displays, demonstrations, new product introductions and product comparisons. “We also have two large contractor shows during the year. On top of those, we have weekly promotions over our fax network and promotions at each location where we dedicate a week to a particular manufacturer's products.”

Brook Electrical Distribution in Chicago recently launched a hand-tool test and evaluation program on its Web site called “You Be the Judge.” The program allows electrical contractors to sign up for a free product, put it to the test, then critique its performance.

“Testimonials are powerful promotional tools,” says Dawn Villarreal, Brook Electrical's director of marketing. “Our judges are contractors and facility managers whom we work with. They don't hesitate to give a frank opinion about the quality and performance of the products they test. They're believable because they're the guys in the field who use electrical products every day.”

Electricians need new tools for new technologies. While electricians continue to get the job done by applying many of the same techniques they have for years, new technologies and work methods are entering the picture.

“Electricians are using new devices to analyze power quality,” says Robert Baird, vice president, apprenticeship and training, standards and safety at Independent Electrical Contractors Inc. (IEC), Alexandria, Va. “They're installing, upgrading and repairing hard-wired and fiber-optic data communication systems. They need new instruments to measure signal strength and signal degradation in glass and copper.

“Electricians are also working with new signaling technologies, building control systems and renewable energy systems such as fuel cells, wind turbines and power cells for electric vehicles. They need specialized tools for each,” Baird concludes.

Tool manufacturers like Seatek Co. Inc., Stamford, Conn., are aware of this need. “Electricians are becoming more involved with the installation and repair of security and data communication systems,” says Lucien C. Ducret, the company's general manager. “We've been following this trend and are developing new tools for this type of work. It is important for us to make it easier for electricians to take on new kinds of projects.”

And at Tibs Group, an electrical contractor headquartered in Decatur, Ga., Mark Tibbetts is beginning to see communication system tools in the hands of his electricians. “Wire snips and other tools that communications people use are finding their way into our electricians' tool pouches,” he says.

Young electricians lead the way in applying new tool designs. Tool manufacturers see younger electricians and apprentices leading the way when it comes to trying new tool designs and applying new installation and repair methods in the field. They also realize the benefit of establishing brand loyalty for their tools early in an electrician's career.

“This new generation of electricians is our greatest key to success,” says Glenn Morgan at Anglo American Enterprises. “It is important for us to show them how they can have a long and productive career by using the proper tools.

“The No. 1 job for tool manufacturers and electrical distributors is to work together to educate new electricians and apprentices and put the proper tools into their hands at the start. It will make a lasting impression throughout their careers,” says Morgan.

Are electrical distributors offering ancillary tools to electrical contractors? Should they? Electrical contractors' consistent need for hand tools induces electrical distributors to offer at least one or two lines of tools aimed specifically at this market.

Lately, some distributors that offer products from more extensive lines such as The Stanley Works are taking an additional step by stocking ancillary construction and carpentry tools that electrical contractors use on the job site.

Mark Tibbetts at Tibs Group says, “We like it when distributors carry some ancillary tools. It's more convenient for us, even if they cost a little more. If my employee must go to the hardware store to buy a hammer, it takes an hour out of his day. It's better if he can buy that tool at the supply house. Time is money.”

Mark D. Rolison, electrical distribution market leader at Gardner Bender, Milwaukee, Wis., says, “As distributors put a greater emphasis on selling hand tools, they realize that to compete with the big chains they must introduce new, unique products. We work with a handful of distributors that move quickly to introduce new products. Large retailers, however, offer new products to their customers well before most distributors make that decision.”

At Granite City Electric Supply, Steve Helle points out that new hand-tool introductions generate sales. “Ideal Industries is a master at this,” he says. “They get a lot of pull-through business on their wire nuts and other supplies because they're always introducing new products for us to sell… They thoroughly understand that by coming out with a new product every month, they give us something new and different to bring to our customers and talk about.”

What changes will impact hand-tool sales to electrical contractors? Electrical contractors are in an enviable position when it comes to buying hand tools. Manufacturers will continue to develop outstanding tools that help electricians work more efficiently and comfortably. They will offer these products through traditional outlets like electrical wholesalers and industrial supply houses. For the most part, however, they will offer them through many other outlets including the “big box” chain stores where market studies show electrical contractors often shop for tools.

Electrical distributors will benefit from additional marketing and merchandising support as competition among manufacturers intensifies and companies like The Stanley Works strengthen distributors' ability to satisfy customer demands for ancillary products needed at the job site.

“For distributors to sell hand tools in a big way, their customers must see them as a tool source,” says Stanley's Mark Babcock. “We know how to sell tools, and we can help distributors sell them better.”

Steve Helle at Granite City Electric Supply says, “If you make up your mind to sell hand tools, you must promote yourself as a tool house. You must have deep and wide inventories because electricians have very specific preferences. They are craftsmen and they want high-quality tools. They won't settle for anything less.”

Larry Doughty at CLS says, “There's always been a tendency among electrical distributors to give up product segments and markets. We let them pass right by or we defer to one of these category-killing outlets.

“That's the wrong approach. Electricians come through our doors every day. We must merchandise to them the same way the home centers do, and we'll be very successful.”