Paint and primer in one

Breakthrough? Gimmick? Who cares, as long as it sells?

Behr Premium Plus Ultra won Home Depot’s Merchandising Innovation of the Year Award in 2009.

The mixing of paint and primer together, in the same can, has swept through the coatings industry like no other innovation. Almost every manufacturer and retailer has added a version of this product to its assortment, although some have done so reluctantly. Within the paint industry, many dismiss paint-and-primer combos as a marketing ploy that raises the price of a gallon of paint. Others say it can save time and money and has a rightful place as a consumer option.

Behr Paints is often credited with introducing paint-in-primer in 2009. But Ames Research Laboratories was the first to market with a paint-and-primer product 20 years ago. And Sherwin-Williams had a self-priming product called SuperPaint in its assortment for many years. But Behr, a division of Masco, launched a huge marketing campaign for its Behr Premium Plus Ultra Paint & Primer in One. Consumers responded enthusiastically, according to executives at Home Depot, the exclusive seller of Behr Paint.

But behind the apparent success of Behr Ultra were some unhappy homeowners who complained, via Behr’s Facebook page, about adhesion problems (paint peeling) and the need to use multiple coats. Craig Menear, Home Depot’s VP merchandising, commented on these issues during a conference call on the company’s fourth-quarter results of 2011.

“We are announcing an improved version of our Behr Premium Plus Ultra interior paint and primer in one,” Menear told analysts. “This new formula has better stain-blocking capabilities and improved adhesion on multiple surfaces.” Durability, scuff resistance and drying time were also improved, he said.

While consumers care about all these attributes, their primary assumption — that they won’t need to use a primer as a first coat — is highly debatable, according to numerous people interviewed for this article. Sherwin-Williams reformulated and repositioned its original SuperPaint because of customer demand, according to a company spokesman. “Our first recommendation [to store customers] is the correct primer followed by a top coat,” said Karl Schmitt, VP marketing research and design. “Using a paint/primer combo paint does not mean you will save a coat,” Schmitt added.

Independent retailers were divided on the issue. None of the hardware co-ops liked the idea of losing paint sales to Home Depot or Lowe’s, which carried Valspar’s Paint and Primer in One. (Home Depot also added, at a lower price point, Glidden “Duo” Paint + Primer.) So they gave consumers what they asked for. In early 2011, True Value launched EasyCare Platinum Paint & Primer, which promised to “seal the surface and top coats in one easy step.” Ace Hardware launched its Clark + Kensington private label in June 2011. A major promotional campaign followed in 2012.

Do it Best stocked two paints in its DCs that were already paint/primer formulas: the Sherwin-Williams paint and Valspar Medallion. Valspar sent out adhesive labels to highlight its dual qualities. Scott Plummer, owner of Plummer’s Hardware, never put them on the cans.

“We don’t push it as a paint and primer in one,” said the Farmington, Mo., dealer. “If people come in and ask for it, we try to educate them.”

Plummer’s staff explains that all paint can act as a primer — but only on the first coat. “I’m sure we’ve lost a customer here and there,” Plummer admitted. But he doesn’t have to deal with unhappy DIYers who have to come back for more.

The paint-and-primer-in-one trend has also caused some problems for professional painter Eric Giansiracusa. “People do read the labels,” said the Pittsfield, Mass., contractor. “If it says it covers in one coat, they want [only] one coat.” Having to use extra paint also plays into customer’s fears that “painters have been scamming them for years,” he said.

Giansiracusa recently did two jobs with Behr Ultra paint. One was the exterior of a house scraped down to the bare wood. “I used only one coat, and the customer was very happy with the results,” he said. “But I know I’ll be back [to repaint] in six years.” The other job, a bathroom with raw sheetrock, needed two coats. Luckily for Giansiracusa, it was obvious. “No customer would have let me out of that bathroom with one coat,” he said.

Dunn-Edwards, a favorite of professional painting contractors, addressed the two-in-one paint issue in a recent customer newsletter. While acknowledging the popularity and convenience of these products, the Los Angeles-based paint supplier pointed out that certain surfaces, such as drywall, metal, masonry, redwood or cedar, need special primers to prevent leaching, discoloration, fading and other problems.

“For interior projects, paint-and-primer-in-one products perform well,” the Dunn-Edwards article said. But professional painters and consumers should read the disclaimers on the label, as well as calculate the overall cost of using a gallon of sealer and a gallon of finish versus two gallons of paint and primer in one.

Richard Hooks, the former owner of Kitty Hawk Paints, an independent paint store dealer in North Carolina, said the combination products are “nothing new.” Hooks remembers a paint/primer product in the Lucite line at PPG paints in the mid-1990s. “They were sold in 2-gallon pails in either white or off-white,” he recalled. “It worked very well and was reasonably priced.” Lowe’s sold the paint, primarily to contractors.

Today’s paint-and-primer products “are more for retail purchase,” said Hooks, describing them as “a new marketing strategy.” While professional painters usually prefer a separate primer, he said, some of the best ones he knows use certain brands — such as Sherwin-Williams “Duration” and Pratt & Lambert “Accolade” — as self-priming paints. Neither brand is advertised or recommended as a primer/paint combo. 

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