Tool centers are beginning to see a shift in their customer mix, with more professional contractors joining the do-it-yourself crowd at the rental counter. While the development is a sign of a construction industry in distress as the housing market rapidly declines, for the tool rental industry it's a welcome opportunity. Smart rental centers are positioning themselves to take advantage of the new influx and make headway with a category of customers that has often relied on owning the necessary equipment in the past.
Like the do-it-yourselfer, the professional contractor wants good tools at an economical price — but the pros also look for service and convenience that suits their needs and style. Rental centers that identify and provide the right key elements have the best chance to attract pros now and retain them in the future.
The story behind the shift
Contractors who have relied on new housing as their bread and butter now have to look elsewhere to keep crews busy. The federal government has reported that construction of new homes in September 2007 fell 10.2 percent from August rates — and declined a stunning 30.8 percent compared to September 2006. At just more than a million units nationwide, the number of housing starts was at the lowest level in more than 14 years.
The drop is a direct result of the slowdown in home purchases. The National Association of Realtors reports that sales of existing homes in September dropped 8 percent from the August figure and 19.1 percent from September 2006. Nationwide, more than 4.4 million homes are sitting on the market unsold. Realtors say that at the pace of September sales, it will take 10.5 months to eliminate the backlog of unsold homes, a record length of time.
In such a discouraging market, professional builders in increasing numbers are turning their attention to remodeling projects. Often these projects may include tasks not usually involved in new-home construction, such as the demolition of concrete or high-pressure cleaning of existing structures.
Contractors may even want to get into entirely new areas that require specialized equipment. For example, mold treatment (large scale remediation and restoration, as well as pre-treatment of materials) is evolving with the introduction of a Concrobium mold control formula that requires application with a fogger that can be rented.
Rather than buying a high-quality, specialized tool that they may not need later when the new-home market rebounds, many pros are looking at short-term rentals to meet their job-specific demands. Renting is also a good way to conserve cash during uncertain times when investing in the upfront cost of tools makes less sense.
And, if in spite of national trends, a contractor is busy growing his business, renting is a way to expand resources to complete more jobs until the professional has confidence that the flow of work will remain steady at the new higher level.
Laws of attraction
It goes without saying that everyone wants the best price when they rent a tool. But talk to the pros as they come into a rental center and a clear picture begins to emerge about the advantages they look for when choosing where to obtain tools. The key factors include:
It may be a cliché, but any pro will repeat this maxim: Time is money. When they are already at a site or on their way to a site and need a tool, they do not want to drive miles out of their way. A rental business with a large number of convenient locations is favored by pros.
Compatible hours of operation
The do-it-yourselfer may sleep in on a Saturday morning and then get under way at 11 a.m. The pro has a different schedule; most are used to being at the jobsite no later than 7 a.m. and will look for a rental center that opens at 6 a.m. or earlier. In addition, the convenience of returning tools late in the evening or checking out equipment on a Sunday before the workweek begins makes a positive difference to the pro.
Imagine this scenario: Pick up posts at the lumberyard; buy cement at the contractor's supply store; then go to the rental shop for a two-man auger. That may be fine for the do-it-yourselfer building a fence, but many pros prefer to stop just once and find all the equipment and materials needed in a single place. Rental centers that are aligned with construction supply sources have an advantage as far as the pros are concerned.
The best tools
It is wise to give a do-it-yourselfer a tool that cannot overpower an inexperienced operator or be easily misused. But pros expect to find high-powered, well-maintained tools that they can use to the best advantage with their advanced skills and knowledge. That means they want a rental center that has a large selection of professional-grade tools — 14-inch diamond-blade concrete cutters, for example. They also want to know that maintenance is a high priority for the rental center; no one wants to rent a tool, only to have it break down on the job. And they like to deal with newer tools that have not been used to the point of inefficiency. The tool center that replenishes its stock when tools reach the two- or three-year mark has an advantage over a center that hangs on to tools until they no longer work properly.
Just like the rental center operator, a pro is someone who is focused on making a living. Pros value streamlined processes that distinguish them from the do-it-yourself novice, such as a system that allows them to acknowledge that they are aware of safety rules instead of having to listen to a lengthy explanation or lecture. They want to be served with a sense of urgency that tells them the rental center recognizes they are “on the clock” and trying to get a job done. Most of all, they want to have a relationship that tells them they can rely on the rental center when they are in a pinch and need service beyond the norm.
Even the most experienced pro may not know everything about a new specialty or a different tool that they have not used before. Having an onsite tool technician who is more than just a paperwork shuffler makes a difference to pros. They look for colleagues who understand the difficulties of specific jobs and who know the tricks of the trade that makes the work go more smoothly.
Now is the time for the savvy rental center operator to demonstrate what it means to be an effective partner for a pro. Because professional contractors are changing tactics to survive in a challenging construction market, rental centers have an unusual opportunity. Those that step up to the plate and deliver what pros are looking for in terms of high-quality tools and top-notch service are likely to establish themselves as the kind of place that pros will want to come back to, even when times are better. The rental business is built on long-lasting relationships, and those relationships have to start somewhere.
Jim Summers is the director of The Home Depot Tool Rental Center.