Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 151, March 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Future Of Tool Buying

Since I have already encouraged readers to email me with ideas about how we can assure aspiring new woodworkers get started right and turn their interest into a lifetime hobby and passion, I might as well ask for some feedback about the business side of our craft. It's a big question… "what does the future of the tool business look like?"

Figure 2 - $7.56 "all-in" cost, shipping, tax, etc. A little high for 50 screws, but
what would it have cost in time and gasoline for me to run all over town and
eventually settle for something less than perfect?
I don't know about you, but I have been drawn neither enthusiastically or reluctantly, but certainly completely, into the maelstrom of e-commerce. Things I never imagined buying online are now commonplace, everyday occurrences. I thought about this the other day when I needed 1-1/2" long #8 stainless steel sheet metal screws with #2 square drive round heads. I could drive to the three big-box stores and to the one chain hardware store within physical reach of my location, but there would only be a so-so chance of finding exactly the screws I needed… and I might eventually be tempted to settle for something less than ideal. Within 45 seconds of opening my laptop, I found the exact screws I needed online, for a fair price, and ordered them. Time, gasoline, and frustration saved, I went about my business and two days later had the screws. It is hard to deny that e-commerce has its place and equally easy to understand how e-commerce is changing the retail landscape forever.

We received some distressing, but enlightening, news the other day. A major (perhaps "former" major would be a better descriptor) chain retailer is closing its distribution center and customer care center here in Wisconsin and 762 people will soon be out of work. Fortunately, the economy in Wisconsin is beyond booming, and I have no doubt all 762 of these people will not only have new jobs within days, but likely at better pay and with better benefits. Such is the nature of an economy where the biggest problem businesses face is finding good employees. But still, a retail giant that has been around most of my life, is now shrinking into oblivion and that is a little sad. I take heart, however, in how new businesses are absorbing these "old business" employees and how new ideas for selling things to people are cropping up every day.

Take for example the mattress business. This is one business where I would guess that a majority of people, perhaps even the vast majority of people, want to touch, see, and lay on the product before buying. No online description of a mattress can possibly tell me whether it will be comfortable to "me." Enter the newest concept of mattress-buying; the unattended showroom and online ordering system. A brilliant entrepreneur has sprinkled mattress showrooms throughout the area. The stores (if you can call them that) are in less-than-high-rent but safe and convenient strip shopping centers, have absolutely zero… I mean zero…. employees, are open all kinds of crazy hours, and are beautifully laid out with dozens and dozens of top name-brand mattresses. Go in, lay on all the mattresses you want, compare, and make your buying decision. Then, using your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or a conveniently provided computer in the "store," you can order your mattress, set up delivery, and kaboom… in a day or two your new mattress is white-glove delivered to your home and your old mattress is carried away. Holy cow, what a great idea!

Personally, I love not being hassled by a salesperson telling me intricate details of every mattress while all I am trying to do is determine if I "like" it. I could care less how many springs are in the thing or how the springs are arranged… I just want to know if I can sleep on the darn thing. Yes, I bought a new mattress from this new retailing concept, and couldn't possibly be happier with the experience. I got a top-notch product that I could touch and test, I got a super price (no employees in the store saves a lot of money), and I didn't have to deal with a pushy salesperson.

There are already some initiatives to take car-buying into this realm as well. Do all the research you want online, narrow your choices down, then set up a "test drive" appointment, and the cars will be driven to your home or office where you can quickly and easily take them for a spin and decide which one you like the best. Then, determine which options you want/need, and place your order online. In a few days, your new car will be delivered to your doorstep (so to speak). Wow, that will be awesome.

So, of course, all this leads me (as do most things) to the world of woodworking. I would love to replace my faltering drill press, but I really need to see, use, inspect, and ponder a new drill press before buying. Alas, there is nowhere around here to see even one of my potential choices, let alone see multiple models. Hopping on a plane and going to Atlanta to visit Highland Woodworking would be a blast, but I can't afford that luxury. But what if…

What if major equipment manufacturers set up networks of "advocate-owners?" Here's how it could work. Happy owners of a piece of equipment would be screened and added to the manufacturer's private list of "advocate owners." Let's say, for example, owners of SawStop Tablesaws. Potential buyers would notify the manufacturer that they are interested in "seeing" a SawStop PCS in action. The seller would locate amongst their "advocate owners" the closest one, set up an appointment, and the potential buyer could then drive to that "advocate owner's" shop, see the saw, test it, talk to the owner, and kaboom… the buyer will have had the luxury of touching and testing the saw. The buyer can then confidently order the equipment online, and the "advocate-owner" would get a small commission or merchandise credit as payment for allowing the buyer to visit his/her shop. Best case, the buyer makes a confident purchasing decision, worst case, he or she makes a new woodworking friend. Everybody wins!

This is a brilliant idea! Okay, I think most of my ideas are brilliant, but hey, who is to say that something like this won't be the ultimate "end-game" of merging the "need to see" and "ecommerce?"

Already millennials (and a few baby-boomers, too) go to high-end clothing stores, try on different outfits, find what they like, then look those items up online and place their order. I've seen concepts for taking over progressively vacating shopping malls and turning them into product showrooms with just one each of every product under the sun. Browse to your heart's content, then, when you've made a buying decision, scan the barcode on the product you want, order it from your phone, and the next day it is delivered to your house. Imagine this…

You decide you need a new vacuum cleaner for the house. You go to the e-commerce showroom, formerly a shopping mall, and wander through millions of products until you find the vacuum cleaner section. There, in one place, are displays of Hoover, Bissel, Dyson, Shark, iRobot, and a dozen others. Every shape, size, and feature set is represented. Each model is plugged-in and parked on a section of tile and carpet so you can test each one in real-time. Each model has a sign listing its features, and perhaps even a video can be played on demand showing more details. Once you have made your purchasing decision, simply scan the barcode on the sign and your order is placed immediately. Best of all, no standing in line to check out and no schlepping the machine to your car. It will be delivered to your home in a couple of days… so with all that time you just saved, you can go to coffee shop and enjoy a cappuccino or latte, perhaps even made by a real person!

Stores with stockrooms and dollars tied up in inventory are quickly becoming things of the past. The cost of inventory shrinkage through shoplifting or damage can also be a thing of the past. The cost of store floor employees is gone. The e-commerce showroom mall can be open 24/7, the only fixed costs being rent and utilities. The employees who once spent their days stocking shelves and dusting merchandise will be redeployed as Point-Of-Purchase Display tenders, going from e-commerce showroom to showroom, freshening up displays, changing signage, or placing new models into the mix. This is the future, make no mistake. I may even keep some of those REIT shares I own!

The world is changing, too, when it comes to spare parts. Need a right-rear quarter panel for that 1972 Ford Pinto in your garage? Not to worry… pretty soon you can simply order it online, a digital file will be sent to a local 3D print shop, and the part will be made (printed). You can pick it up in a couple of days or have it delivered. Easy-peasy. Remember the Star Trek replicator? Already there are experiments making 3D printed foodstuffs, tasty with perfect nutrient mixes. We may not be far from the "total cake" that provided all the nourishment needed for the characters in "This Perfect Day," Ira Levin's famous dystopian novel.

And, of course, if a 3D printer can make car parts and food, it can clearly make furniture, which brings us full circle back to our hobby of woodworking. There will always be woodworkers, just like there will always be cooks, car-tinkerers, and yes, retail stores. But technology is downright upheaving some things, morphing some things, and melding many other things. Those of us who will always buy wood, work with tools, and make things by hand will simply use the technology that suits us best. Perhaps we enjoy running around for hours, going from store to store, looking for a just-right screw. Or perhaps we will use the time we save by ordering that just-right screw online to make something in our shop. All in all, the technologically enhanced future doesn't scare me… it excites me.

What are your thoughts about the "digitally-enhanced" future of woodworking? Let me know. I will look forward to hearing from you.

While you are pondering the future, be sure to watch this month's video. With the complicated legs of the Under The Tablesaw Utility Infeed and Outfeed Storage Cabinet done, the work is speeding along. In this video the cabinet carcase gets glued together, the aluminum top supports get prepped, and we start building two different tops for the unit. We're cruising to the finish now, so get on board!

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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