I was looking at the January 2011 issue of Metal Center News recently and noticed a story, "Distributors Dabble in Retail." It discussed five steel service centers that had opened up retail fronts to move metal.
The motivations for opening retail locations, either at the actual warehouse sites, or at remote locations, ran the gamut. Pemco Inc., Hamilton, Ont., Canada, looked at the storefront as an excellent way to sell metal remnants that would otherwise head for the scrap bin. Triple-S Steel Supply, Houston, viewed its retail locations as a great way to identify salespeople who love customer service and try out new marketing ideas.
Of course, selling metal through a storefront is a lot easier than trying to sell metal fabricating services over the counter. Having said that, I know of several metal fabricators that have tried to launch their own product lines, but they rely on online sales channels rather than investing in a brick-and-mortar retail establishment.
General Welding & Fabricating Inc., Elma, N.Y., is one exception that I recall. My co-worker Tim Heston documented how Mark Andol, owner of General Welding & Fabricating, lost some fabricating business to overseas sources and, as a result, decided to open a storefront for goods made domestically. The Made in America Store has a really nice Web presence, but people in western New York can pull up to 900 Maple Road in Elma to walk the aisles of the store if they choose. While there, they can buy domestically made clothing, home decor, outdoor goods, and toys.
It's easy to believe that General Welding & Fabricating is alone when it comes to venturing into the world of retail. But, obviously, the fabricating company saw an opportunity. Perhaps its confidence in the retail store idea was fostered by the fact that the company has experience marketing its own products, such as trailers, snow plows, and truck equipment.
Jumping into retail is not for the faint-hearted. You are talking about expenses tied up with the building and actually committing to labor to work the store, even when no customers are in the store. Then you have to market the existence of the store.
Despite displaying so much intelligence and ingenuity for designs and manufacturing, metal fabricators really don't get marketing. Many shops likely never had to, but in today's economy, they have to let the world know just what they can do. Nevertheless, some shops don't get it. I recently tried to contact a shop that had sent out a press release discussing its investments to create a prototyping shop within its general manufacturing shop, but found out that the shop didn't want to speak about it with the trade press. Huh? It reminded me of the time basketball player Charles Barkley claimed he was misquoted in the autobiography he helped write. Metal fabricators, for the most part, don't want to seek out attention.
However, that shouldn't rule out the retail idea for metal fabricators with their own products. If a business isn't trying new ideas, they won't find any opportunities to expand the business.
For the record, I actually visited a few metal fabricating Web sites at Christmastime, looking for some cute holiday ornaments and barbecue grill accessories. I didn't purchase anything because, as many consumers learned during the Great Recession, I really didn't need those things. A little marketing might change that way of thinking.