If any doubts remained that the plumbing industry and the Internet would be connected, they should be wiped away now that Seattle-based Amazon.com, an Internet retailer of music, books and videos, has begun to sell plumbing products. The Internet superstore launched Amazon.com/homeimprovement Nov. 9.

Contractors and homeowners can purchase plumbing equipment such as faucets, fixtures, hardware, plumbing parts and miscellaneous items such as pipe insulation, hoses, strainers, cements, fittings, valves, heat tape and washers through the Internet behemoth. Home-improvement products also will be on sale in seven other categories that include hardware, housewares, outdoor living, painting supplies, tools, electrical and lighting, and lawn and garden.

"The target market for our home-improvement division is the professional contractor," said Joe Galli, president/COO of Amazon.com.

Any product purchased from the home-improvement section of the Web site will be shipped anywhere in the country, regardless of weight, for a flat fee of $4.95, excluding overnight delivery.

"We have upwards of 400 brand-name products available," Galli said. "We’re selling toilet seats, faucets, installation equipment, parts and accessories for plumbing products. We don’t offer porcelain products yet, but we’re constantly working to expand our offerings. Contractors have told us that they don’t always want to go to their distributors to buy equipment. That does not mean that every contractor will buy his tools and equipment online, but some of them will."

But again, some of them won’t.

"I don’t do any purchasing over the Internet yet," said Patrick Wallner, president of Wallner Plumbing in Redding, Calif. "I'll always go to my wholesaler over anyone else. The years I've put into the relationship with my wholesaler are not worth saving a few bucks. Plus, if I ever need to return something, there’s never a problem.

"I would buy products on the Internet if my wholesaler started doing e-commerce. But now I use the Internet mostly to find phone numbers, names and maybe obscure products if I can’t find it at my wholesaler first," Wallner said.

Online purchasing may take awhile to catch on with contractors, said Jack Gatewood, vice president of A.J. Danboise, a contractor in Farmington Hills, Mich.

However, if contractors don't get online with the Internet they'll be left behind, Gatewood said. "Buying products online is definitely doable in this industry, especially for those guys who stock their trucks more than their warehouses. That's a convenient way to keep products available.

"I have not purchased products off the Internet yet but do feel that contractors need to get our industry more involved with it. Our company does not have e-commerce abilities on our site where customers can solicit business or interact at this point, but we’ll probably change that down the road."

Amazon.com purchased Tool Crib of the North, a tool-and-equipment catalog company with an online business and shipping program in place, to help support its home-improvement division. Tool Crib of the North likely will benefit from its new partnership with the Internet store, but the effect on other wholesalers will remain uncertain for some time.

"We look at our customers, not our competitors," Galli said. "We believe that we will enlarge the overall market for these types of products and stimulate the wholesale market. No one has to lose for us to win.

"Amazon.com is a great customer for its manufacturers," Galli explained. "The professionals like that we carry everything, and there are few returns, even though we have a great return policy available. People are making informed purchases because of all the information available at our site."

Customers can rate Amazon.com products on a five-star scale and add their own comments, Galli said. "The reviews give contractors the benefit of other people's experiences with the products, which is something they typically wouldn’t have."

The Home Depot also plans on selling products on its Web site in spring 2000. Customers will be able to check store inventory online, have products delivered and return online purchases at a store.