Examining the Relationship Between Plumbers and Wholesalers

Plumbers and wholesalers once had an unquestioned bond, but the emergence of big-box retailers has made that relationship trickier in today’s modern world

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In a world full of disloyalty, undercutting, and dishonest business practices, the professional plumber has remained relatively unchanged in morality and tact.

We make every attempt to buy from the local plumbing wholesaler because of the relationships we built over decades. We have been told that the wholesaler is the answer to our overhead issues as it relates to on-hand material. How they are able to take the cost burden of logistics, bulk buying power, and supply chain management out of our hands and make their warehouse our warehouse.

Lastly we have been told that the material our wholesaler sells us is not the same product that we buy at the big-box stores. While that may have been true in the past, it is no longer the case. Should our loyalties remain with our old “guard at the wall”? Or is it time to think of a different approach since that wall has turned into a sieve?

The climate for today’s wholesalers

The days of selling only to the licensed professional are gone. Anyone can now shop and buy the same material at the same cost. With large big-box retailers and online next day shopping, customers can have anything from a faucet washer to an entire furnace and A/C package shipped for free to their doorstep fully charged with Freon and cheaper than a plumber’s purchase price.

The wholesalers changed strategy because of this and now sell to anyone who walks through the door. This strategic shift, along with the stock dump during the recession, has led them to completely transform from what they originally got into business for — and in my opinion, it is what will ultimately put them out of business.

Wholesalers selling a service to plumbing firms

Think about it: A long time ago the wholesalers “sold” themselves to plumbers as a service. They thought of themselves as the answer to our stocking problems. Their business model was to accept the cost burden of excessive on-hand material, the logistics, and the supply chain management that typically fell on us. Prior to World War II, most plumbing firms kept all their own stock and got their material directly from the manufacturer at manufacturer pricing. This changed when the wholesalers wanted to sell the “service” of being a warehouse to alleviate those burdens from the plumber.

Remember when wholesalers would stock a ton of material that we actually needed and would tell us that they would be our warehouse? They would explain how they would stock everything we needed. They have since switched to buyers programs. It was a clever strategy hoping that the plumber would play businessman and focus on value savings instead of the supply chain.

Those buyer programs we all buy into have become a joke. The discounts are not significant and in many cases they sell at the same price to our unlicensed competition. But we have maintained our loyalty and purchased from them even though we are quite capable of buying water heaters and faucets from big-box stores at a cheaper price with better warranties. Wholesalers sold us out when customers could buy whatever they wanted from The Home Depot, Lowe’s, and the internet. The big-box stores are absolutely trying to put the plumbing wholesalers out of business, and the wholesalers are struggling.

What is the solution?

As you think about the history behind the wholesaler, also note what we are expected to do today. It is the wish of the wholesaler that we enter stocking programs and buy seasonal items in bulk; that we buy water heaters in bulk and store them in our warehouses; that we order ahead and stock items we consider “everyday items” that end up being “special order” for the wholesaler. Have you asked yourself why we need this middleman? What service does the wholesaler provide that we cannot do, do not want to do, or are already expected to do ourselves?

I think we need to look long and hard at what exactly we are being charged. If that means buying from the big-box stores, so be it. If that means our lifelong friends — the wholesalers — go out of business more quickly, then so be it. I am the last plumber who prefers to buy from the big-box stores. But at least the big-box retailers make no bones about what they do. They do not expect loyalty or tell us that we receive special pricing. They have a clear understanding that they are my warehouse, and the logistics, low pricing, and on-hand material is solely their responsibility.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has 22 years of experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College. 


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