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One of the biggest mistakes any supply house management team can make is to force its customers to buy from a competing supply house or hardware store.

This happens all the time. How? When customers enter your shop and find that you don’t carry something they’re looking for or that your price on something is too high, they’ll go somewhere else to buy it. You’re literally driving them right into the arms of your competitors!

I know this happens, because many years ago I was an HVACR contractor. And although I had a supply house that I preferred to do business with, I often had to go other places to fill an order because the price of a commodity (such as refrigerant or a fan motor) was too high, or because my supply house just didn’t carry all the things I needed. A large part of my purchases started going somewhere else.

The secret to success is to make your stores one-stop shops for your contractor and servicing customers. You do this by finding out what other items they’re buying. How do you accomplish that? Learn from Wal-Mart! In our local store, the cashiers always ask me if I’ve found everything I’ve been looking for.

Do your counter people do this? As they are ringing up each sale they should be asking that very question. The replies should then be sent to management to see what is driving customers into the arms of your competitors.

I know you can’t stock every little piece and part, but can you suggest alternatives? Wisdom teaches us you can’t mark down all your prices, but can you work out attractive bulk pricing for common commodities that would make a trip somewhere else less worthwhile?

Understand that well-asked questions about what other brands or product types your customers are looking for will point out important trends as well as weaknesses in your product line. Expand your thinking when it comes to the types of things you carry. Service techs, for example, may plan to run to the hardware store after leaving your shop to pick up things you don’t carry, such as cleaners, solvents, tools, nuts and bolts, cases of drinks, ice, coolers, etc. And while they’re there, perhaps air filters, brazing materials, copper and more.

In the retail business a lot of these products that you may not carry are referred to as “up fronts,” because they are stocked up front next to the cash register where they easily can be seen and purchased on an impulse buy.

I know that you’re thinking, “We aren’t running a grocery or hardware store here.” Please recognize that whenever you send your customers somewhere else to buy what they need, you may be losing them. Besides, there is more money to be made even from things such as bottles of water, ice and energy bars.

Yes, this is a staid-and-steady business and most companies have been operating the same way for generations. But there is a lot of competition for your customers’ business and you could do a better job of keeping them faithful by turning your stores into one-stop shops.