Tom has 17 years of experience as a commercial locksmith and over 20 years in door hardware distribution.
Samples of Online Ads for Door Hardware
During my two decades in door hardware distribution, I have helped a few folks get started selling retail door hardware over the Internet. Some of these folks had deep door-hardware knowledge and some did not. If you have experience, you have something more to offer your customers, but if you don’t you can compensate by limiting the complexity of what you sell and/or your support for it.
Some of the people I helped become online hardware dealers started out as “brick and mortar” companies with a staff and inventory and some started off with absolutely nothing. Whichever type of company you are, it is possible to be successful at selling door hardware online.
Starting or Expanding a Business
If you already have a business, you don’t have to start one. You only need expand your existing enterprise into the online market. Your entrance into this market will be relatively easy since you already have accounting systems in place.
If your Internet business will be your first start-up, keep in mind that starting an online business is the same as starting any other business; it takes planning. You will need to create a business plan. I am not going to go into much detail here because others do a great job of that elsewhere: the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), for example. Before starting a business for the first time you would be wise to seek their advice. You should also form relationships with an accountant and an attorney so that you start off on the right path.
The following are some planning items specific to starting an online door hardware store that might not be covered by your attorney, your accountant or the SBA.
Before you invest your money in starting an online business, be sure to see what others are already doing there. Search “door hardware” online and note the names of the businesses that are found. Go to the web sites turned up by your searches and create a spreadsheet that shows the prices offered by each company on a selection of items that they most of them carry. Check out their return policies. See if and when they offer free shipping.
After you have researched several companies in depth you will have a good notion of what you will need to do, the kinds of services you will need to offer and what prices you will need to charge in order to compete.
Who will be your customers?
The most lucrative customers for door hardware are repeat customers. Who buys door hardware regularly?
These customers buy commercial door hardware: exit devices, grade 1 locks, door closers, grade 1 keyless locks, and door and wall stops as well as other hardware. This is the prime market that you want to pursue.
The residential market is less desirable because residential customers are not generally repeat customers, and to get those customers you must compete with the likes of Home Depot and Amazon. It is possible to compete, but it is more work for less money. They buy inexpensive key-in-knob locks or decorative levers or handle-sets, and they usually only buy once every few years when their lock wears out.
How do you attract the lucrative commercial customers instead of the labor-intensive, less lucrative residential customers? Simply carry the products that commercial customers want and not the products wanted by residential customers. How do you successfully sell online in the commercial market? Make your products as easy to buy as possible by:
- Pricing your products right
- Making your products easy to find
- Making your products easy to customize
- Providing good service
Since online hardware sales is competitive you need to try to find an edge over your competition.
Some online door hardware dealers stock inventory and some do not. As a start-up online door hardware seller your overhead can be low if you maintain no inventory, but if you maintain no inventory you will depend on your distributor’s ability to inform you about what they have in stock. You need to be able to quote accurate delivery times to your customers in order to make repeat sales.
Fast delivery is often a crucial factor, and sometimes the only factor, in your customers' decisions about whom they buy from. Therefore, one very powerful advantage can be to maintain an inventory of some products, because it will allow you to offer immediate shipment on these products whereas your competition may not. In addition, maintaining an inventory can improve your relationship with distribution, or, if the inventory is big enough, might earn your business a factory-direct relationship. Inventory costs money, however, first to get and then to keep.
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To be inventory-less or to be inventoried—that is the question, and just one of the many choices you will make as you create your business. Carrying some well-selected items, however, may be just the edge you need.
Create Relationships with Distribution
Door hardware is a good business to be in online, but it is very competitive, as your market research will show. To compete in the online market you will need to have good relationships with door hardware distributors; for your business to be profitable you will need to buy products as cheaply as you can.
Truth be told, dealing with the factory directly will almost always get you the best price. However, factories make their money by shipping massive quantities to relatively few distributors. To establish a worthwhile relationship with a factory one may need to place a substantial stocking order for several thousand dollars worth of hardware, which is fine if you have a nice, big, empty warehouse but not so great if you are working out of your home.
Factories are generally not interested in a customer who wants to buy one product or a few products at a time, and would generally prefer not to ship directly to your customer, whereas most distributors are fine with small orders and happy to ship anonymously to your customer. Be careful, however, and be sure to ask what your distributor’s policy is. The direct shipment business (known in the industry as ‘drop shipping’) is very lucrative for distributors, and most have programs designed to make sure your customer never finds out the name of your distributor from them. Make sure your distributor has such a program.
As an online hardware dealer, you will be dropshipping often. However well your distributor performs at shipping is how well you perform at delivering. Choose your distributors wisely.
Domain Name, Big Deal
Having the right domain name (for example, “doorhardware.com”) can be a good thing, but it is not as important as it once was because of the improvement of search engines over the years. Search engines have learned not to ‘judge a book by its cover,’ but to delve into content and decide what results to retrieve according to the search parameters. Similarly, keywords and meta-tags are important, but not nearly as important as they once were. So get the best domain name you can think of that is available and does not infringe on anyone else’s rights and go with it.
Search Robert Brooke and Associates and you’ll see that a URL that mentions the product name is just not that vital to being a big success.
Unless you are going to have your own server with its own connection to the grid you will need a web host for your online store. Look for a host that specializes in e-commerce hosting. Price is a factor, but it should not be the most important factor. The most important characteristics to look for are reliability, speed, and room for growth. As a dealer in door hardware, you have the potential to offer literally millions of items for sale. Your host needs to be able to accommodate that.
Many e-commerce web hosts offer turnkey shopping cart driven software systems. You can use one of these, or if you happen to be a software developer with PHP expertise you can create your own, or you can have one created for you by a software developer. The problem posed by selling door hardware online is the number of variables. Each cylindrical lever lock, for example, has, for example, nine or more possible finishes, three or four possible backset dimension, a door thickness dimension and a keyway. Many turnkey shopping carts are set up for only two item parameters: size and color. Therefore your e-commerce site will need to be customized to accommodate the many choices that need to be made when selecting a piece of door hardware. This requires expertise.
Ease of navigation—that is, the ability of your customers to find what they are looking for easily on your e-commerce web site—is vital to the success of your business.
Be sure your products are accurately depicted because if they are not, your business will be plagued with excessive returns.
Like images, your product descriptions must be accurate in order to limit returns.
Here is where the versatility of your e-commerce software comes into play. Door hardware items may require a size, a finish (color), handing (which way the door swings), design (or style), function, door thickness, keyway, etc. Your goal will be to make it easy for your customer to find and choose the options that will ensure that they get the exact item that they need.
Let's look at a product and its options. Let's start with a Schlage ND Series, Grade 1 cylindrical lever lock. Below is a part number matrix that illustrates the variables:
Table of Schlage ND Series Options
In the above table, I list a fraction of the possible option choices available for Schlage ND Series locksets. You can click on it to get a larger view.
The challenge faced by all online dealers of this product is to offer the customer as many of these choices as possible without overwhelming or confusing them.
Obviously if one were to display the entire ND series in one window with drop-down menus and/or checkboxes and radio buttons for each and every possible option, one would have an exceedingly complicated project page on their hands. Therefore it is necessary to start with several base models, say, one page for each function, and then offer a limited amount of options customers commonly need.
How well you present your products and their variables greatly affects your online store's usability. Badly displayed products produce confused customers who need more technical support and dissatisfied customers who end up with the double inconvenience of getting the wrong product and having to return it to you. Also, you will have to return it to your distributor, which will make you less popular with them.
Best to do a great job of product explanation and display upfront and avoid problems in advance.
Following are a few examples of how to and how not to present door hardware products online. In each of the examples, I went to an online hardware dealer and search, "ND Series lock."
In the above example, the customer is given one choice, no options. This dealer has a different page for each ND Series lock, showing a picture, a part number and a price. The lock shown will come standard with a 4-7/8 inch ANSI strike and a 2-3/4-inch backset spring latch. These are the most common choices. But if a customer is replacing a lock with 2-3/8-inch backset this lock will not fit, and because the customer did not have to choose a backset, they may not even know why it doesn't fit.
To display every model with every option using the method shown above, each variable would need its own product page—literally thousands of product pages just to offer the complete line of Schlage ND Series locks.
There is an advantage to this method, however, if you only want to offer the standard versions of a few functions. In this way, you will sell much fewer locks, but since the locks you are offering are the most common ones they will sell, and they will most likely be right. As long as you make clear exactly what the customer is buying by listing the standard options it comes with, the customer need not be confused. If you list the standard backset and strike at least they have the opportunity to go and check to make sure this is what they want.
Unfortunately in the example above these details are omitted. In fact, the image provided is incorrect. It shows a closed lever whereas the ND40 would have two open levers: one with a pushbutton for locking on the inside and one with a slot outside for emergency entry. The lack of details listed and the false image are almost a guarantee that some customers are not going to get what they thought they were getting. This will likely result in a return, and returns cost time and money.
The example above makes me think that this dealer has an inventory, and that his ecommerce site is tied directly into his inventory database, because when you run a search of a database this is typically what the returned data looks like. An inventory database keeps track of items on hand, so it can tell the web site what is in stock. In addition, the ecommerce software can be programmed to display a certain quantity all the time, or text, such as, "Built-to-order / generally no delay."
It could also be that this online hardware dealer has no inventory of her own, but uses the e-commerce software to reflect the inventory of her trusted distributor. She does not actually have the product in stock, but her distributor does. To the customer, this makes no difference because it does not matter who ships the product the same day it's ordered as long as someone does.
The database displays a list of results of the customer's search, in this case, "ND series lock." The customer scrolls down the list of results and selects the item they are looking for, assuming they find it. The ability of the customer to find product is limited to the ability of the database server to respond to the customer's search. Often customers must do more than one search to find the product they need.
Although I did not dig deeper, ideally when a customer clicks on one of the links in the list they are brought to a product page where they can select options and thereby customize the product to perfectly meet their requirements.
Note that the picture presented in response to the search is accurate and is accompanied by a brief, but accurate description. A+ for that.
This is perhaps the greatest level of detail I have seen on a product page.
The locks have been categorized by function. The customer clicks on the function they want and they are brought to the product page for that function. There are presented a wide variety of choices: drop-down menus for lever design, finish, backset, keyway and keying. Although customers would still need to contact customer service for less common options like non-standard door thickness, most of the time they will be able to accurately customize their selection without time-consuming human interaction. This is ideal.
Notice "This Item Ships Free." That is certainly an inducement to click, "Add to Cart." It also says, "In Stock." Once again, it might be in stock at this dealer's warehouse, or it might be in stock at their distributor's warehouse; it does not really matter, as long as it actually is in stock.
On the other hand, many large customers enjoy human interaction, so you need to be able to give it on some level. That level is up to you. You can be available by phone or Skype, solely by email, or you can be unreachable. However, the more personal attention you give, the more likely it is that you will be successful.
Phone or Skype?
Will you offer telephone customer service and support? If so, you will need a toll free number and a business phone system with voice mail. However, if you offer customer service and support through Skype or via an instant messaging service instead you will save the cost of buying and maintaining a phone system, and you can provide them constant service using your handheld device from wherever you are in the world. Yet if you do not offer phone sales support you will lose some less technically savvy customers. It is another choice you have to make.
In the end, it is a decision about how much work you are prepared to do to make your online enterprise a success. Perhaps doing business at a limited level serves you well, or perhaps you need to maximize your ROI. These kinds of decisions are yours to make.
I wish you well in all you do.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2014 Tom rubenoff