I noted an article in a previous issue of this magazine where the writer talked about the possibility of supply houses growing their business through online sales by copying some of the methods of the very successful online retailer, Amazon.com.

My question: Is the HVACR supply-house industry really capable of entering this field in a large and important way? To answer this question, I did some online research to see what actually is being done.

I started by going to the Amazon.com website and typing in “R410a.” And though the site showed a couple containers of R410a refrigerant (at a little more than $100 for less than two pounds), most of the products listed on the next 20 pages were service tools. I did note some residential HVAC systems for sale, but the customer reviews were terrible.

Could you imagine all the problems that you would encounter if you sold split A/C systems online to consumers? Think of the liability! And how would you handle returns? Not a good idea!

Yes, our industry tends to be a bit staid and stodgy. Most of our business is done locally with licensed HVACR contractors we tend to know and trust. Also, your contractor customer base doesn’t want you selling over-the-counter to their customers. If you try to do so, you surely will start losing your established customers and start trading them for do-it-yourselfers who are going to return all sorts of damaged goods, asking for a refund. Again, not a good idea.

Then I researched the websites of some of our industry’s largest HVACR supply houses to see what they are currently doing in terms of online selling presence. And though all those that I looked up had web pages, they were pretty well what I expected; just an online presence, telling about the products they sell, where they are located and a little about their company history — not much incentive to shop there. Though, a few had little popups indicating someone was on duty and willing to instantly answer any questions I had, but I doubt anyone was really there, since I was doing this research at about 5 a.m.

However, I did note one particularly well-done website of Distributor Corporation of New England (www.dcne.com) that did put me in mind of what I would find on Amazon. This company must have paid a huge amount to have all its work done, and there must be quite a continuing cost to maintain it and to keep the complete parts list up to date. This site is an excellent example of how to do the job right – for those who are really interested in having a major online presence for their company where actual sales may be made.

How are they handling the problem of keeping unqualified end-users from purchasing anything they want? Everything (every piece of large equipment and all the tools and parts, including the things that must be back-ordered) is listed, but no prices are shown, and each customer must register and sign in to show they are qualified before prices can be shown and anything can be purchased.

What is the advantage to having such a website? If I was an existing customer, I would find using such a site to place orders very easy to use, and I would actually do some impulse buying, because things are so easy to find there.

In addition, there are the “sale” items that are listed on the home page. But if I were a qualified HVACR contractor anywhere in North America or anywhere else on the globe, I would be tempted to register and purchase from this company because of its large and easy-to-find stock. And because of the “Amazon effect,” most are willing to wait a day to receive it and pay for the extra shipping.

Times are changing out there. It’s a global world!