Mark My Words—September, 2018

By Mark Lipton,

  Filed under: Departments, Mark My Words

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Contributing Writer

A Call to Paint-Makers: Pay Attention to Us!

I’ve gotten used to living my life at the bottom of the food chain. When we go out, my fiancé tells me where we are going and how I am to dress. My daughter tells me where to send my money and how much to send (a process that leaves her much more satisfied than it leaves me). I knew when we lost our beloved dog last month that things would change around the house; I just didn’t know that I would be in charge of eating all the leftovers!

Still though, I don’t like to complain (out loud) because I’m an optimist and know that from the bottom, there’s only one way for me to go now!

Here’s the silver lining to being forced to live my life on the bottom rung: as an independent paint retailer I’ve had 30 years to prepare me for this exigency! And I always have you other dealers to keep me company because while it may be lonely at the top, it’s standing room only here at the bottom!

But why are so many quality independent retailers all crowding into this little spot at the bottom of the paint world? This is not the sort of column where I bore you with a ton of meticulously researched facts but I do know this: the independent paint retailing segment is a multi-billion dollar chunk of business that provides very high margins for the suppliers and manufacturers we buy from. So why the cold shoulder from so many?

There are examples of companies that do a good job focusing on the independent channel. Benjamin Moore of course comes to mind: they’re the biggest player in the space, but there are others. What I’m talking (complaining) about though are the big boys. Where are Sherwin Williams and PPG? These two guys combined manufacture and sell around $30,000,000,000 per year in paint. If PPG and SW were US states, combined they would have the 15th largest budget in the country! They are clearly the industry leaders in all respects but one: they seem to care little about the independent channel.

PPG is in my view the better of the two in terms of how they treat independents. They do sell to independents, but their program is a hodgepodge of ever-changing priorities. In some markets they are supportive of independents (at least the ones that have found a way to coexist with their company owned stores). But for the most part they are absent. I give them credit in that that they still maintain lines for the channel, so they give the appearance of at least catering to the independents.

No, it’s really Sherwin-Williams that I struggle to understand. Despite their excellent choice in monthly columns to sponsor (my sponsor Pratt & Lambert is owned by SW), I don’t see anything in their “go to market” that tells me they’re all that interested in the independent retailers. Since their merger with Valspar, it actually seems to be getting worse based on what I hear and am experiencing!

Their main paint brand in this segment is Pratt & Lambert, which is very low volume. That’s as good as it gets for them. Believe it or not they still have Dutch Boy and Martin Senour but I don’t see either of those two brands even lasting much longer.

Part of me wants them to stay asleep but I admit: it’s never good to wake a sleeping giant. Since they have all the resources, there’s part of me that would be excited to see what they could do for us! The amount of data they have to share, infrastructure, manufacturing and marketing capabilities, personnel, training capacity, and much more would, if they ever took an interest, make them instantly the most formidable player in the space. They’re selling us brushes, stains, rollers, caulking and more: why not paint?

A presentation given about a year ago to the investment community by the president of their Consumer Brands Division didn’t even MENTION independent retailers and made just a passing mention of the brands they sell us! That tells me all I need to know.

Before you write me saying that we don’t need any more competition, I disagree! My individual stores don’t need any more competition and neither do yours. But more companies selling to the independent retailers creates more competition, and that creates better outcomes for all of us. I may be on the bottom rung on the ladder, but you’re not going to climb up without stepping on me first!

Mark Lipton is the 4th generation owner of Tremont Paint in New York City as well as a consultant to the coatings industry.