I was a bit surprised to find Snap-On products — albeit “tourist” stuff like flashlights and beer coozies — at the local Costco. But I was even more surprised to find Snap-On as one of the brands touted among the Father’s Day deals on Amazon. As you might imagine, I clicked through. My first find? The screwdrivers you see pictured above, an 8-piece set carrying the “Snap-on Industrial Brand JH Williams” name… and retailing for right around $50.
You’ll find other Snap-On tools listed on Amazon as well, including a couple of socket sets, a torque wrench, some adjustable wrenches, and (not so surprisingly) the same flashlights, razor knives, and chisel scrapers that already carry the name in your local big box shops. You still won’t run across the mechanic’s standards (wrenches, auto sockets, etc.) or storage, so it’s not like Amazon will replace dealing with your local truck-based dealer. Still, the jump from toys and souvenirs to actual tools makes us wonder if the future of truck-only distribution is on its way out — if maybe still years away.
Ask any pro mechanic — we have — and you’ll get an earful about tool trucks. On one hand, they offer a professional convenience that you just can’t find anywhere else. The truck brings the tools to you, delivers your purchases right to your place of work, and offers on-site replacement. Just hand your busted tool to the driver and he’ll hand you a replacement. We’ve also heard tales, though certainly not universally, about truck operators who take the time to learn about their route’s needs, serving not just as a retailer, but also as a repository for the collective route’s knowledge. Wonder which specialty tool really does the best job for your application? Your truck dealer might know.
That said, it seems like more and more tool manufacturers are realizing that while the pro market offers significantly higher margins (not to mention a need and taste for higher-quality and more expensively-designed and constructed tools), there are easily 50 high-end DIYers for every pro on a given route — DIYers willing and able to buy the same pro-line tools. And there’s another 5,000 average tool-wielding folks for each of those high-end DIYers. That’s a lot of cash, even at a low markup.
So what does this mean to us? And what does this have to do with finding Snap-On at Amazon? First, let’s take a look at the positive side of all this. We’re seeing the gap between pro-line and homeowner tools filling quickly with new models and offerings. It’s not that we’re losing the high end or the low, but rather seeing the gap fill up with new stuff that’s not quite pro and not quite cheap-ass. These offerings make a lot of sense for cash-laden DIYers — a lot more sense than just shelling out for pro gear that’s more than they need.
On the other hand, check out the recent comments on Toolmonger and you’ll see a lot of consternation and concern related to the idea of “watering down” classic brands. Sure, sometimes this is just brand-love — the chant of folks blinded by tool color and advertisements and the caterwauling of people who buy tools for status more than use. But underneath the blind wailing there’s a thread of truth, too. Brands change hands now like stocks on Wall Street, and each owner has a different plan behind their brand investment. Sometimes big brands buy specialty companies to expand their line into the pro level, and this strikes us as a good thing. It gives smaller boutique brands the cash they need to survive, and it delivers value to stockholders, too. But sometimes they buy the little guys for the name alone, with the full intent of dumping the product and all the people who make it, tacking the name on whatever they’ve got to sell.
The trick is, as always, evaluating each of these situations on an individual basis. That’s why I tend to put more weight into Toolmonger comments which offer specific knowledge versus pure opinion. When someone writes “I bought a recent whatever-brand item and it didn’t hold up,” that catches my attention. “They’re just crapping up my favorite holy brand” — not so much.
At any rate, we’ll keep an eye out on Amazon for other truck-only brands, and most importantly for the day the full lines become available. That direct market seems pretty lucrative to us, so we expect it’ll eventually happen. Or maybe we’ll see separate-but-similar-looking lines created just for the online retailers, like the way Levi’s makes different jeans for Target and Wal-Mart.
What do you think?
Update (6/13/12): I received a great email from Toolmonger alum Stuart Deutsch, who noticed this as well and wrote a piece about it a while back for ToolGuyd. You can (and should) check out his full article, but the gist is that back in 2011 “Snap-on renamed the J. H. Williams Tool Group to Snap-on Industrial Brands,” which enabled some folks to market the tools to Amazon and others under variations of the Snap-on name.
I’m of two minds about this:
First, though I used to (as a consumer) see all kinds of secret conspiracies and such behind the various tool company corporate structures, after sitting through many presentations and meeting a ton of folks involved in the process — as well as seeing and trying out thousands of tools from them — I don’t really feel that way any more. Though it’s rarely a popular view among either consumers or manufacturers, Toolmonger has long promoted color-blindness when it comes to tool purchases. Brand is just that: brand. It’s a name. It’s a marketing strategy. And it works, in that it encourages consumers to think more about past purchases than present ones. We believe in considering both.
So Snap-on isn’t hiding their purchases. Snap-on Industrial Brands, like virtually every other manufacturer out there, makes and sells tools under a number of names. Sometimes technology and manufacturing overlap between those brands, and sometimes they don’t. Is your Williams or Bahco wrench really a Snap-on wrench? Is your Stanley screwdriver a MAC screwdriver? A Proto? A DeWalt?
Short answer: No. And yes. These are different products. While the combinations of these companies and brands do matter in terms of market strategy and design decisions, what concerns those of us who’re in the tool using market instead of the tool making or tool selling markets is the product itself.
Second, I still can’t help but suspect that every manufacturer is still looking for the best way to tap into the direct market. It’s just too tempting to sell those tools directly to the consumers. The more I think about it, though, the less I think this will really mean to the pros who depend on the truck market. If Snap-on were to suddenly offer the entire Snap-on line via Amazon today, the guy who fixed the A/C on my car last summer wouldn’t care a whit. He still needs that direct service that only the trucks can provide, and he’s gonna buy from the trucks regardless.
On the other hand, direct sales could mean a lot to people like me. A long time ago, Sean and I needed a very specific socket adapter for a project, and to get it we had to call around to the local auto shops, get the contact for our local truck dealer, then camp a spot on his route. It would’ve been nice to be able to just order it with next-day Prime shipping. On the other hand, when we did finally meet up with the truck operator, he knew exactly what we needed — and he gave us a card and told us how to find him in the future. Try that with Amazon.