Five forces shaping power tools
As founder of the home channel’s leading Internet retailer of power tools, Don Cohen of ToolKing.com has as good a perspective as any on the trends shaping the power tools market.
His observation: “Faster, smaller, cheaper, better — that’s where products are going,” Cohen said. “There are more technology-enhanced products that are better looking, and better working, than ever before.”
Another sage observer is Bill Palmer, senior merchant at The Home Depot. Asked what is driving the power tools market, he said: “Price — along with innovation — is the main reason for growth.”
Home Channel News spoke with Cohen, Palmer and several other merchants and manufacturers to gather their assessment on the power tools segment.
1. MORE POWER/LESS SIZE
Similar to recent years, the trend is toward smaller and more ergonomic tools that provide as good, or better, power than larger models, according to Palmer. “For sure that’s the way it is going,” he said.
Industry experts said that users have changed what they’re looking for in tools based on how they use them in various environments. Therefore, the need for smaller tools and less weight becomes more prevalent. “Twelve-volt is now the rage, and while these tools will not perform like their big industrial brothers, when DIYers are doing the ordinary jobs or are operating in tight spaces, nothing works better,” said Steve East, VP advertising, Orgill Inc.
The challenge comes when users still require the power and performance levels to complete their jobs in an efficient and effective manner. In all categories, manufacturers are working to optimize the balance between size and weight, East said.
“Twelve-volt lithium ion has been the fastest-growing segment of professional power tools over the last one to two years,” East said. Many professional users see these small, lightweight tools as complements to their 14V, 18V and 20V lines.
“These tools are getting lighter and more powerful at the same time,” Cohen said. “The batteries are holding more charges for longer because of the new technology.”
One significant advantage lithium ion has brought to the power tools market is the ability to pack more power in a smaller package. For example, the average nickel-cadmium cell is about 1.2 volts, whereas the average lithium-ion cell is about 3.6 volts.
Jason McNeil, product manager at DeWalt Power Tools, said with the introduction of lithium ion, “People started wising up to the reality that they don’t need monster power tools to get their applications done. We’re seeing tools and batteries shrink in size, and we’re also seeing users pick a tool that fits their work with less of that overkill, or getting the biggest, beefiest tool on the job site.”
The evolution of lithium ion in the power tools market, some say, is akin to the change consumer electronics users found in shifting from VHS to DVD, or from a Walkman to an iPod. “It’s a very aggressive, defined change in the marketplace,” McNeil said.
2. BATTERY LIFE/TECHNOLOGY
Lithium-ion batteries for power tools were introduced to the market about six years ago. Retail costs came down after the initial introduction but have stabilized over the last 18 months. As robust as lithium battery technology has been, experts say it is still growing, with most pro brands now selling lithium-run tools versus NiCad.
“The lithium performance gives the user more power/torque, improved run time and better performance in colder or hotter temperatures,” said Palmer of The Home Depot, noting that the temperature reference is specific to Milwaukee Red Lithium and Ridgid Hyper Lithium products found in Home Depot stores.
Today’s batteries are longer-lasting and provide quicker recovery battery life. As a result, manufacturers are looking to seize this market opportunity with new offerings. “The increased voltage over 18V that some manufacturers are doing is a direct result of better battery life,” East said.
Porter-Cable introduced an 18V battery status indicator that allows contractors to test battery-charge status quickly and easily, which avoids taking an uncharged battery to a job site. These units include an LED display with a fully automatic state-of-charge indication. An automatic shut-off feature shuts the unit down after 15 seconds without use to limit unnecessary battery drain.
3. PRODUCT INNOVATION
New products are the lifeblood of the industry, and innovation continues to redefine power tools. Palmer pointed to the Ridgid Hyper Lithium and Milwaukee Red Lithium as innovations, as well as new tools that allow users to complete a project easier — such as oscillating or multipurpose tools. “Multipurpose is huge. Innovation is big,” said Tim Hamman, global product merchant, True Value. “Manufacturers are coming out with oscillating tools, multi-cutters, smaller hacksaws — the creation of smaller tools with smaller blades are being introduced into the market.”
Jim Stewart, cordless product manager at Porter-Cable, said his company’s recent innovations described as an inflator and a battery-status indicator “deliver features that are most important to users — speed and ease of use — along with top-notch quality at a great value.” He added that the units can be powered from an 18V Porter-Cable lithium-ion or NiCad battery or a 12V DC power source from a vehicle.
One of the interesting current trends in power tool design, according to experts, is the rapid development of new materials. These materials provide the tools with a more robust and durable look and feel, and they reduce the overall weight. One caveat is that constant cost pressures sometimes limit expansion into new materials or require manufacturers to shift toward resin-based materials. Still, manufacturers are finding ways to be creative and produce a great tool, even when forced to use less expensive materials, Hamman said.
Cohen said enhancements in ergonomics is another trend in power tool innovation, with the goal of ensuring that tools are comfortable and balanced for users who will be spending long hours on a project. New features include grip design, controls and actuators. “A lot of thought has gone into the look and feel of power tools,” Cohen said.
4. VALUE PRICING
Price, along with innovation, is driving the power tool category, with pragmatic consumers looking for value wherever they can find it. “Promotions and aggressive pricing seem to trump new battery technology,” said Mike Clark, senior VP and chief merchandising officer, True Value.
Primarily because consumers continue to search for value-oriented products, NiCad power tools still outpace other battery technologies, observers said. Price is a direct component of this trend, and while the price difference between Li-Ion and NiCad might be narrowing, costs are still increasing for both.
Many of the value-oriented are DIY shoppers, and big brands including DeWalt and Milwaukee are aggressively targeting this market, especially in light of the slowdown in the contractor business. In terms of examples, “lighter models focused on women are coming out, and stick 12V lithium caters to that DIY audience as well,” Hamman said.
“Female users especially prefer smaller, lightweight tools, and 12V lithium-ion tools fit this preference,” Orgill’s East said.
The big names have also launched new and improved programs with a “More for Less” strategy, offering tools with improved ergonomics and longer run times. One example is the DeWalt 20V lithium tools replacing the 18V tools at the same price.
Value isn’t just about products that cost less, however. While price is definitely a leading factor, ToolKing.com’s Cohen said he sees customers spending more by choosing professional-level tools that will retain their value longer than less expensive models. True Value’s Hamman agreed, saying: “These consumers don’t want to have to replace their tools every two or three years. They’re getting more for their money. They understand value.”
5. PRIVATE LABEL
The new market of value-driven consumers has spurred business in private label as well, experts say.
“Private-branded is critical for our retailers right now,” True Value’s Clark said. “These tools offer lower price points and step up features and benefits. Consumers get more tools for less money. Retailers get better margins in a low-margin category. We’ve reinvigorated the brand and rebuilt our merchandise with private label.”
Clark said brands like the co-op’s own Master Mechanic are coming to market with mid-priced quality tools at opening retail price points. He said the products offer many of the features of higher-priced competitors, which he listed as contemporary look, ergonomic compact design, additional features and benefits, toll-free support for service and parts, and lengthy (three-year) warranty.
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It`s delightfully easy to
It`s delightfully easy to use. For every person that likes to know his way around the household business and small home duties, this is the perfect tool to hold in your garage. You see, earlier this month, my wife told me she ordered on the internet a new set of bathroom vanities with sinks for both our bathrooms downstairs and upstairs. I asked her: "So, how are you going to connect them to the water pipes and get them to function?". She answered me rapidly that is why she has me around the house, to take care of stuff like this and she make me laugh. All in all, when the order was delivered to the house, I was impressed with the high quality of those new vanities she bought.
Down on Main Street
A reply to an email arrived in my inbox the other day. It read, in part: “After 99 and 1/2 years and four generations, the ‘community’ bank refused to renew our line of credit. Would love to discuss this issue.”
It was a message from Jack Coleman, who was winding down operations at his fourth-generation lumberyard and home center in Harrodsburg, Ky., not far from Lexington.
Most of the time when you talk to a 99-and-a-half-year-old company, the conversation takes the form of a hopeful celebration looking back at major decisions and looking ahead at another 100 years.
Those are easy conversations. This one was hard.
Coleman has an impressive resume as a leader — 14 years in the Kentucky state legislature, a past president of the Kentucky Building Materials Association, and a bank director for 13 years. He is the great-grandson of company founder Clell Coleman. But the forces acting on the economy, his market, his business and the banks were too much for Coleman’s Lumber and Home Center. And since the situation facing Coleman’s Lumber unfortunately is shared by others, it’s important to explore the reasons.
“You have a perfect storm,” he told Home Channel News in a recent phone interview. “You have businesses that have lost money, banks that want to pull back, and regulators that have been in these banks looking at all the issues and requiring severe measures by the local boards. It’s just a perfect storm. And nobody in Washington seems to be listening.”
Coleman still describes his career in the LBM industry as “blessed,” but the demise of a company is naturally frustrating. At one time, the business had about 32 employees, but staff dwindled to about 13 or 14 near the end. “They’re our family,” Coleman said.
The last couple years have been particularly tough on the business. One clear problem has been customers’ inability or unwillingness to pay for services. As cash-strapped customers file bankruptcy and the liens and judgments pile up, the business simply starved.
“What we’re witnessing is the disassembling of Main Street,” Coleman said. “We’re protecting Wall Street, and witnessing the demise of the small businesses. We asked our bank for an extension, and they flat out refused.”
Such experiences have given Coleman sympathy for those who joined the Occupy Wall Street movement. But as a former legislator with knowledge of the system, he remains confident in it. He recommends a fix from within — through the power of the ballot and political pressure.
As a politician, Coleman was a member of the Democratic Party, but he feels both parties have blown their opportunity to address the key issues of housing and jobs. Lumber companies and Main Street businesses all over Kentucky and beyond are hurting, he said. And there seems to be no concern for small business owners.
“My intentions are to be able to walk off this property and say to my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father and this community that we did the right thing for the right reasons, and we finished this thing honorably,” he said.
As Coleman’s doors shut, the parking lot was full. Business was picking up in 2011. But the damage was done. “I’m concerned about the rest of the country,” he said.
Fourth-generation family businesses deserve a better fate.
— Ken Clark
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[The following are responses to an HCN Daily item about Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, built around a 9% business tax, a 9% individual tax and a 9% national sales tax. It would also eliminate the mortgage interest deduction.]
“I’m for [the 9-9-9 plan]. What no one is talking about is the undercurrent of money from illegal activities that this plan will catch and tax at least 9%. Currently no revenue is generated from this source. Would it be great if this didn’t exist? Yes. Is that realistic? No. This plan will catch money on BOTH sides of the ball. Wages being paid to illegal residents will at least get caught when they spend their wages, and money earned by persons engaged in illegal activities will get taxed when they spend it. The underground economy will always exist, and it is being taxed at 0% right now.”
— Kent Porter
Porters Building Centers
“Almost anything is better than what we have. His plan is simple, fair and will spur economic growth. I think any criticism of his plan or others similar is spurred from a misconception that too little tax revenue is our problem. There is already too much tax revenue. The problem is an oppressive government growing on credit terms at our expense. No government in history has ever been close to this big, and it was unsustainable years ago. Herman Cain’s solution is great for the revenue side. I hope he has a great plan about the spending side and the massive shrinkage of government that must happen if we are to survive.”
— Jeff Wilson
“In my discussions about this plan, most people forget that it is supposed to eliminate all other federal taxes, thus simplifying and lowering some things in our life. I’ve asked numerous young people and they are against it, thinking that now they will pay more in taxes until I ask them if they buy gasoline, fly on a plane, or use a cell phone. To which they say, ‘I didn’t know all those had federal taxes on them.’ Like most things, the media plays people to whatever slant they land on. I’m still undecided for a couple of reasons:
“1. Will they ever really eliminate other taxes, permanently?
“2. Will there be a ceiling that the 9-9-9 [plan] will never increase?”
— Erv Sweet
“What are the unintended consequences of the plan?
“No deductions for that home improvement loan and 9% more cost added to building materials. We know how quickly a 10% increase kills a category in the store.
“No tax on used merchandise? How long before an ugly underground economy emerges that skirts building codes.”
— Tom Fromelt
Southern Yellow Pine
“In our market (New Hampshire), Southern Yellow Pine is used primarily as pressure treated, and mostly in exterior decks. The result of decreased design value changes would most likely cause us to increase member size and reduce spans. It’s hard to say what impact that might have on the market. It will make the finished price of a deck project higher for sure. But, will it be enough to stop people from building these decks? Probably not.”
— Eric Murphy
East Coast Lumber
“The Southern Forest Products Association (SFPA) does not test lumber or establish design values. SFPA is not a lumber rules-writing agency. The SFPA’s primary function is to market lumber products and to help users understand Southern Pine grading rules and design values developed by the Southern Pine Inspection Bureau (SPIB) and approved by the American Lumber Standard Committee (ALSC).”
— Southern Forest Products Association
Sunday hours and home centers
“If I am an applicant seeking a job from a business that is open seven days a week, and I firmly believe that working on Sunday or Saturday would conflict with my religious beliefs, I have two options:
“1. Apply elsewhere. This is America. You get to choose where you want to apply for a job. Apply at a workplace that is open Monday through Friday.
“2. Be upfront to the selecting manager that you are not available on Saturday (for Sabbath) or on Sunday. The employer can then decide if your schedule will fit into the current pool of employees.”
— Paul Rodriguez
Hayward So You Can Build
Santa Maria, Calif.
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