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Volume 41,   Issue 1      January 2006

Sticking Together
    What do Glass Shops Really Think of Their Relationships with Builders?

by Sarah Batcheler

With new homes on the rise and glass-specific features being included in more and more new homes, many glass shops are busy with ongoing work from homebuilders. USGlass talked to glass shops across the United States and found that while they value their relationships with homebuilders for many reasons, they especially value those builders who are satisfied with their work, because that builder will, undoubtedly, become a repeat customer. 

Coming Back For More

What glass shops do for homebuilders today, translates into future jobs for that shop. Managers at glass shops agree, homebuilders will continue to work with those that deliver a good service. 

“I know what they [homebuilders] want and they know what to expect from me,” says Keith Rushing, manager at Arrow Glass Co. in Urbana, Ill.

Rushing continues, “In developing a relationship with a homebuilder, it is important to understand what the typical requirements are for mirrors and shower doors with regard to the technical aspects of products, quality and installation. But, perhaps of more importance, the homebuilder needs to be able to rely on timely installations, a predictable pricing structure and an attitude that the builder’s problem is our problem. In other words, we’ll bend over backwards to try and meet the needs of our contractors.”

“Some high-end builders have worked with me for 20 years. They are my bread and butter,” says Ed Pemberton, owner of Budget Mirror & Glass of Bothell, Wash. 

“The relationship we have with homebuilders is one of trust and respect, our builder customers rely on us for expert advice ...” says George Schaaf, owner of Schaaf Window Co. in Chimney Park, Ill. “The homebuilder who is our main customer, tends to be a custom homebuilder doing two to five homes a year,” he says.

Having repeat builders returning for services also means glass companies spend less time searching for new customers.

“We do a lot with contractors that we already have. If you get one [homebuilder], you make sure and keep him,” says Rushing.

Schaaf says he notices that homebuilders are allowing more decisions to be made by the homeowners and glass shops for high-end products.

“They [homeowners] are getting a bigger choice in style and design. It is a good thing, allowing the customer to get what he wants and the builder to get a higher profit margin on those choices,” he says.

A Matter of Fashion

Builders have witnessed the drastic change in requests for glass products over the years. Trends often change like the weather, and such is the case for glass utilization in the home (see related article, page 54). Currently, the master bathroom is the hot spot for interesting glass and mirrors. People also are putting more value into nice shower enclosures.

“We’ve seen more highly-priced shower doors over the past 5-10 years,” says Rushing.

In the kitchen, cabinets are also getting attention with decorative and art glass. 

“Patterned glass or antiqued glass in cabinet doors—that is a big move. It is more than it used to be,” says Rushing.

“No one wants plain cabinets. People are having glass that I’ve never even heard of, such as seedy, tree bark, reed, daisy, autumn leaf, crystallized and vecchio, installed in cabinets,” says Matt Arbour, manager of Wayne’s Glass Services in Gardenerville, Nev. Arbour says he is seeing a lot of heavy shower enclosures, low-E and grey glass.

“Besides the bathroom, I have installed lots of retrofit new vinyl windows, mirror wall, skylights and green house windows. That all is the brunt of my business,” says Pemberton.

“One area we are seeing glass being installed is over fireplaces,” says Rushing. 

“I have even seen some glass walls and windows between rooms,” adds David Zepp, owner of Old City Glass & Mirror in Philadelphia. Zepp says that though his company does more work with remodelers, it does a limited amount of business with homebuilders as well. 

The requests glass shops sometimes get are not always typical product requests.

Randy Stinson, manager of Glass Shops in Reseda, Calif., says he is seeing a lot more dual-glazes, grids and vinyl. His most unusual request in the last year, though, was peach veneer.

The most unique request that Mike Martin, owner of Modern Glass & Mirror of Texarkana, Texas, has received was for Roman gothic designed initials sandblasted onto glass for a shower enclosure. 

Zepp says he has done some fiberglass work that goes opaque, along with a lot of pattern and art glass. 

“We do more art than regular glass – and we do some restoration glass,” says Zepp.

Driving the Trends

What is popular today may not be the trend tomorrow. Though major trends are similar from region to region, there sometimes is a time lapse before what is popular in one area of the country catches on in another.

“On the flip side, people aren’t really coming in and looking for regular plate glass anymore. They are requesting what they see in magazines,” says Zepp.

“It seems the trends start in big cities and the smaller areas are less exposed to the trends,” comments Rushing. “The trends come in and then everybody is doing it. I have seen that in Florida; the expensive shower doors have been big there for a long, long time,” Rushing adds.

Keeping it Simple

So, with so many trends and options driving the industry, do glass shops prefer to work with builders or homeowners? For shop managers and owners the answer is quick: homebuilders.

“Builders know a bit more about what they want,” comments Stinson.

“It is difficult to make homeowners understand why certain things can’t be done,” says Martin.

Pemberton says he works with various builders, and likes to work with them because they are quality-orientated and organized.

Part of the reason homebuilders may be easier to work with is that they usually already know what they are looking at. 

“When you work with builders, you get less headaches, because there are generally fewer choices,” says Zepp, who adds that because his company is located in the middle of Philadelphia, he works on lots of high-end projects. “I stock 100 different patterns of art glass, plus regular plates. When homeowners come here to look at them, they are stuck in here for hours.”

“Homeowners seem to complicate the process,” adds Arbour, who works with homebuilders and homeowners equally, adding that he doesn’t prefer one over the other. 

“They’re pretty much asking for the same thing,” he says. “It’s probably easier to work with homebuilders because, after working with them, there becomes some repetition. You also get to know them [homebuilders]. It’s great, as long as you can keep up with them,” he says.

“Homebuilders are professionals and they know what’s going on. For homeowners, it is a one-time experience and there is a lot of education,” says Rushing. “It’s fine and we certainly don’t mind doing it, but it’s time-consuming,” he adds.

Pemberton says that there is a perception among glass shops that homeowners are picky about quality. 

“I welcome that. I’ve been in the business for more than 40 years and I don’t have any lack of confidence in my ability to do a nice job,” Pemberton says, who also works with both homebuilders and homeowners. Pemberton points out that there is a bit more profit margin with the homeowner because they are the end-user.

Getting Business

While there are lots of ways for glass shops to get their name out to homebuilders, most of the shops that talked to USGlass said they rely most heavily on word-of-mouth and referrals.

“The majority of the business we get is from word-of-mouth. We also give out tons of business cards and we get lots of referrals,” says Zepp.

Pemberton says, “I don’t go chase work; I let it come to me. If your quality is good, the rest falls into place. You have to show integrity and do things when you say you’re doing it.”

“We get customers from people we’ve worked with in the past, we advertise in the yellow pages and by referrals,” says Stinson.

Schaaf agrees that word of mouth is important. He also gets builder customers through outside salespeople.

“To get them [homebuilders], you have to go out and talk to them,” says Rushing, who adds that his company hasn’t done any media advertising in a couple of years.

Conquering Challenges

Recent years have brought many challenges for glass shops. While some of the challenges do involve the homebuilder relationship, others simply come from the daily pressures involved in the construction business.

“Our business has gone through the roof—our area has boomed considerably,” says Arbour, which lead to the challenge of taking care of that demand. “We have gone from five to 11 employees in 18 months, and now we’re adding a commercial division.”

Zepp says the main challenge for his company, which started from the ground up just six months ago, is quick turn-around. 

“For example: You order a product and it’s supposed to arrive in seven to 10 days, so you tell the customer it will take 15 days to be installed, but it actually takes 20 days for the product to arrive because it’s late. It’s frustrating because it seems like you are selling something you can’t produce,” he says. “I’ve experienced lots of problems with bevel work. It is usually the custom fabrication stuff that takes so long,” Zepp adds.

One problem Pemberton says he experienced this past year was increased pricing.

“Surcharges have increased. I am dealing with it by trying to streamline business, shopping with suppliers and getting aggressive with my suppliers,” he says. 

Another challenge is traffic issues and gas prices.

“I have had to revamp my schedule and keep decent hours, so that I can leave in the morning and avoid traffic,” Pemberton adds. In spite of these issues, he says his company is having its best year ever, with a new location opening in Palm Springs, Calif.

Pressure From Big Box Stores

With the rise of do-it-yourself homeowners the big-box stores, including Lowe’s and Home Depot, have been very successful. However, the glass shops we spoke to still say they feel limited competition from those stores. 

One of the reasons there is not a competition issue is that the stores carry different products than those offered by glass shops.

“We don’t deal with their lines, we have our niche—we can offer different sizes and different types of glass,” says Rushing.

Martin says that he won’t even install a shower sold by Home Depot or Lowe’s. 

“The salespeople at the stores swear they fit but they don’t fit every time,” he says. 

One problem many glass shops see with the big box stores is that the employees there don’t have nearly enough knowledge.

“Quite honestly, they [Home Depot and Lowe’s] need to get out of the [glass] business. They should stick to the acrylic shower stalls and leave the doors to us,” says Martin.

“There is no competition at all,” says Pemberton. “The projects I do shouldn’t be performed by average homeowners.”

Pemberton continues, “I’ve considered offering them my services because they don’t have any expertise in that area. In fact, those stores have stopped offering glass products all together because it’s a highly-specialized field, and a lot of people are scared to death to start with it.”

No matter what is popular in glass or what challenges arise for glass shops, one thing is bound to stay the same: Glass shops can benefit from established relationships with homebuilders—as long as they stick together.

© Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.