Power tool makeover

SMOOTHER: Festool’s 6-inch dual mode sander RO 150 FEQ switches instantly from rotary motion to random orbital sanding motion.

The industry’s manufacturers are offering retailers the opportunity to build their power tool assortments around a “beauty-and-the-beast” strategy. While the beauty side of this approach includes new stylish, design-oriented tools for the DIYer, the beastly tactic includes 36-volt beefy tools for pros.

But don’t let all of these good looks and brawn fool you. Underneath their sex appeal and muscle, all of these tools have brains too.

On the pro side, for example, innovations include a cordless drill from Panasonic that offers a 16-setting digital clutch employing a sensor and a microcomputer that allows users to press the tighten button to stop the screw after it has been tightened about one-half of a rotation. This system reduces mistakes from over-tightening and makes fine flush alignment quick and easy even at high power.

After nearly two decades of a blurring of lines between heavy DIYer and professional power tools, it’s this type of innovation that some analysts see as the beginning of a gap that is designed to move pros up to more expensive tools—such as this Panasonic model that retails for close to $300.

One of the best ways to see emerging trends in power tools is to wander through the aisles of a specialty store, and one of the hottest products at Woodcraft Supply is the German manufacturer Festool’s cordless drill. Priced at nearly $350, this tool is the lightest 12-volt drill on the market and the only one that offers a brushless motor. Its unique motor design produces virtually no mechanical wear and allows for a short drill head for compactness.

In addition, the drill is clever enough to allow users to easily change the standard chuck to one that is offset for drilling into corners or to one that allows right-handed drilling.

Another popular product at Woodcraft is Festool’s $440 sander that can switch instantly from a rotating motion to a random orbital motion, allowing users to switch from rough sanding to fine sanding and polishing without changing tools. It’s the introduction of these types of tools that has allowed Woodcraft, which was primarily a catalog company, to grow to an 83-unit franchise chain—a 20 percent increase over the past two years.

A growing interest among Woodcraft’s customers in pneumatic tools and safety products are among the trends that other savvy tool retailers should keep in mind.

Nearly two-thirds of consumers responding to a recent survey say they enjoy shopping for power tools, according to a 2006 Mintel International study. That may be one of the reasons the market is expected to continue growing. While the marketing research company the Freedonia Group has forecast a 3 percent annual increase in hand and power tool sales through 2011, some industry analysts suggest that this estimate may be underestimating the market’s potential.

Steve East, vp-advertising for Memphis-based hardlines distributor Orgill, points to the industry’s manufacturers’ ability to create new demand by continuing to offer innovations. Specifically, he notes that the new lithium-ion batteries being introduced will attract both first-time tool buyers and encourage other DIYers to upgrade their tools.

Manufacturers are coupling this new technology with new tool designs to appeal to DIYers. For example, Black & Decker is scheduled to launch its new VPX in late October. Similar to the marketing strategies of other companies, Black & Decker is releasing a new color branding scheme with its lithium-ion line. The orange and black colors have been replaced with a stylish black, orange and white look.

And the tools’ good looks are coupled with smarts. For example, each VPX battery is 7 volts and works in all of the tools. However, some tools, such as a drill and a hand vacuum, are capable of taking two batteries to up their juice to 14.4 volts. Consumers will be encouraged to buy a starter kit with a battery and charger, and afterward they will only need to buy the stand-alone tools that don’t come with batteries and are thus much less expensive. Consumers who do not want to buy a kit can purchase a battery charger on its own.

Craig Hansen, power tool buyer at Ace Hardware, foresees this line being very popular during the holidays and said that Ace already has plans to include the line in its seasonal advertising. “Consumers are going to come looking for these products as holiday gifts, and most stores will want to have them available,” he said.

The VPX line is even expanding the market for “power tools” by including an inverter that allows consumers to charge cell phones, media players and other devices using their VPX battery. The line also includes an inflator for adding air to bike tires or soccer balls, and industry watchers say they would not be surprised if more tools in the line were available by the holiday season.

Lithium-ion batteries have the advantage of allowing quick charge times and increased run times, as well as the ability to be recharged many more times.

East also pointed out that light DIYers will be attracted to these tools with these batteries because of their longer shelf life, which prevents batteries from drastically discharging when not in use over extended periods of time.

Homeowners will be able to store their batteries for months without experiencing a loss of charge. So the next time they reach for the tool, it will still be ready for use.

While this benefit will not be particularly useful to professionals who use their tools every day, the fact that lithium-ion batteries can generate more power without adding weight is going to cut more tools from their cords. For example, a 36-volt lithium-ion battery offers twice the voltage capacity of an 18-volt NiCad battery for efficient high-amp draw tools, but weighs nearly the same.

As a result, manufacturers are now able to offer cordless hammer drills because lithium-ion batteries can provide the required power without making the tools too bulky or heavy to use.

In addition, manufacturers are able to build ultra-compact contractor-grade tools, such as small 14.4-volt drills that are essentially new products. While the consumer market for power tools is projected to continue growing faster than the professional market, these types of innovation should give pro sales an added boost by creating new demand and higher price points.

Like all lithium-ion driven tools, these compact and high-power tools will have the added benefit that users will not experience the dramatic dip in performance that NiCad batteries yield as they near complete discharge.

This feature allows for more use between charging, but there is less “warning” when a battery needs recharged. As a result, many makers are boosting the brain power of their cordless tools by including a gauge that tells how much charge is left. “They are also adding features to their chargers such as diagnostics that check the batteries’ ability to hold a charge,” East said.

Both East and Hansen are also quick to point out that it’s not just power tools that are using the beauty-and-the-beast strategy, coupled with brains. Beefy, titanium framing hammers are still posting strong sales with pros, and consumers are drawn to ergonomic hand tools that seem to make a fashion statement.

Manufacturers are also adding power to hand tools to boost their intelligence. Examples include an adjustable wrench by Black & Decker that adjusts to fit a bolt or nut with the push of a button, powered tape measures, electronic measuring devices, powered caulk guns by Milwaukee and, most importantly, lasers, which continue to grow in popularity among both pros and DIYers.

Selling a complete package

Packaging still a driving force at Olympia. As new products generate traffic to booths across the STAFDA show floor, savvy distributors keep in mind another sales consideration: packaging.

If you ask Olympia Tools marketer Tony Lee, he’ll tell you that while trends in packaging change, the goal does not. “The package still has to identify and help sell the product,” Lee said.

And he should know. Olympia has had a lot of success due in part to their packaging techniques. In fact, they rely on it. “We don’t count on a lot of national advertising to sell our products. Instead we rely on our packaging to drive our marketing efforts,” Lee said.

According to the company, most of Olympia’s tools are packaged with a hangtag, a patented double-injected hang-tag. And their products offer customer assistance at the retail level while taking up as little shelf space as possible.

“Our big effort is really to reduce the packaging and let the user touch and feel the product,” said Lee. It’s part of the company’s Try Me approach to marketing.

“Put the product in the customers hands,” he said.

Simplicity in packaging also assists one of the fastest growing trends in the field of merchandising—eco-friendly packaging. On top of reducing the bulk of the product, less plastics and more recyclable materials are also being used in the eco-friendly approach. It’s an approach that Olympia and other companies are hoping to take advantage of.

While the concept of minimal packaging has been successful in Europe for many years, it hasn’t caught on as well in the United States, Lee suggested. “In the U.S. the packaging is often bigger than that product,” he joked.

Inspiration for tools packaging comes from a variety of merchandise, said Lee, and often it comes from merchandise categories beyond the building industry, such as ideas from toothbrush and razor manufacturers.

“There are some really interesting concepts out there,” said Lee.

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