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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

Open Letter To Manufacturers

Mobile Sanding Center – Design and Materials

Shop Overhaul (Really? ...Already?)

It Got Hot In Her Kitchen...

Coffee Table Project – Finished!

An Open Letter To Manufacturers

Some 40 - 50% of woodworkers live further than 50 miles from the nearest specialty woodworking retail store. I didn't pull that number from a completely dark place. Woodworking stores are generally lumped into a government-defined category of "retail-hardware" of which there are approximately 16,454 locations nationwide. Sources indicate that the chains and cooperatives of Handy Hardware, Do-It-Best, True Value, and Ace make up 14,800 of those hardware locations, leaving only about 1,650 locations that "might" be woodworking stores… but remember, there are quite a few locally-owned, independent non-chain hardware stores, so there are probably only a few hundred specialty dedicated woodworking stores.

Government census data indicates that 42% of the US population lives in rural or urban areas of less than 200,000 population. There are just 153 urban areas (towns) with a population over 200,000. If we assume a specialty woodworking store would need to be in an urban area of well more than 200,000 to survive, and conjecture that some very large cities could support more than one woodworking store, my estimate of a few hundred dedicated woodworking stores is probably pretty good. Keep in mind that the two franchise/chain woodworking stores collectively have just over 130 locations (according to their own web sites).

The point of this is simple… many, many of us woodworkers increasingly rely on internet retailers to make our tool, equipment, and supply purchases. In order to make wise, informed purchasing decisions we need as much accurate information about your products as possible. The on-line retailers, Highland Woodworking being a prime example, are doing an incredible job… but you, the manufacturers, in some instances are letting us down.

There are certain business realities, namely cost/benefit relationships, that on-line retailers face, just as any other business does. For the most part, internet retailers depend on manufacturers' specifications, descriptions, and photos to fill their on-line electronic catalogs. It would be prohibitively expensive to set up a photo studio, hire technical writers, and recreate what is essentially your responsibility to create in the first place.

When manufacturers leave out critical information, provide sketchy or confusing specifications, deliver second-rate photos, and generally fail to accommodate the buyer who cannot physically look at, touch, handle, and measure a piece of equipment or a tool, you are doing a disservice to your prospective customers and to your channel of distribution. It is up to manufacturers – you – to make sure internet retailers have all the resources they need to sell to those of us who do not have the luxury of dropping by a store and getting a hands-on look.

I probably use a table saw less than any woodworker alive except for the puffy-shirt and knickers crowd that does everything by hand. Still, if I were in the market for a new table saw, a critical dimension for me would be the distance from the front edge of the table to the blade. After an hour of perusing a dozen manufacturers' web sites, I found only two that provided that vital measurement. Notably, SawStop provides this information, and much, much more in their excellent on-line specifications sheet… an example of the way it should be done!

After writing about it a year or so ago, still not all manufacturers provide sound (noise) level information. A dB rating should be included for every piece of power equipment. Bench top machine makers are notorious for providing overall machine dimensions but rarely, if ever, providing the distance from the base of the machine to the work surface. How does a prospective buyer know what the ultimate working height will be when he or she sets the machine on top of their workbench? Almost never does a description or specification sheet tell the length of the power cord, only occasionally is the exact size of the dust collection port cited, and never is the hole spacing given for the bench attachment bolts.

Online retail merchants stock and sell thousands of products. They cannot be expected to fill in the missing information from your specification sheets and instructions, augment your photos, or write more comprehensive descriptions… that is your responsibility.

In case you are thinking I am being a little too hard on you, consider this… many buyers now rely more on blog posts, chat rooms, YouTube videos, and articles like this one to determine whether or not a specific tool fits their shop, their needs, and their method of working. Doesn't that tell you something? Ask any customer service employee at any internet retailer and they will tell you they get asked the same questions over and over.

Here is a simple idea that will help you better support your retailers, and in the end, your own sales efforts: Acquire and accumulate all the various emails, letters, and phone questions from prospective customers and incorporate all the answers into updated specification sheets and instruction manuals. Your retailers will gladly forward the questions they receive about your products, too, if they are assured you will actively address those questions in future iterations of spec sheets and descriptive literature.

For the nearly half of us woodworkers unfortunate enough to live uncomfortable distances from woodworking stores, I am asking that manufacturers help us out, help out the retailers we rely on, and help yourself… please be more comprehensive and thorough in your creation of descriptive literature, specification sheets, and other collateral sales material. We will surely thank you, over and over, with our business.

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