These days, there are few plumbers who haven’t been affected by the emergence of home centers. For some, nearby home centers mean a loss in business to weekend do-it-yourselfers, or a growing number of unlicensed plumbers among the competition.

But you don’t have to go too far to find plumbers who have found that home centers aren’t invincible. They’ve learned that by playing up natural advantages they boast as licensed plumbers — from expertise to reliability — they can hold their own against any home center giant.

Take Herrell Plumbing Inc., Orlando, Fla. Recognizing that central Florida was suffering an epidemic of copper piping failure in homes, owner Dan Shaw aggressively began pursuing the repiping market several years ago.

“Twenty percent of Orlando homes have been repiped, another 20 percent are about to be repiped and most will have to be repiped eventually,” he notes. During the past six years, Shaw’s crew repiped more than their share at about $3,000 a job.

The only problem, Shaw adds, is that the valuable work done in these projects is all hidden behind walls. However, since all the fixtures had to be disconnected, Shaw got an idea: “While we were there, why shouldn’t we change the faucets to brand-new models?”

To help homeowners handle the additional cost of the plumbing work, Shaw arranged for a local bank to provide 9.5 percent fixed rate home equity loans. Thanks to the available financing, Shaw found it quite common to tack on another thousand dollars or so to the repiping bill. “For a payment of only about $100 to $125 a month,” he adds, “homeowners were able to upgrade their faucets and fittings to the kind of quality they’d always wanted.”

But Shaw went on to add an additional touch of inspiration by turning co-op advertising on its head. “We wanted our customers to be aware of the products we use and like, and we needed the manufacturers’ assistance to do that,” he explains. “So we produced a commercial about repiping homes with the message that said, ‘Now’s the time to upgrade your plumbing system with these products.’”

Gerber, Shaw’s main choice of faucets, was the first manufacturer to sign on, paying for the time slots in return for a 10-second tag. “It was just the opposite of how it’s usually done,” Shaw adds.

Since the first commercial, Shaw signed up other companies for tags as well, including B.F. Goodrich.

Shaw reports that his idea has been a win-win-win situation for plumber, manufacturer and consumer. “The homeowner now has the faucets and fittings — something he can see and touch — as a result of that very expensive job,” he says. “This is something he can show the neighbors.”

His experience points out one major advantage plumbers enjoy over home centers. Customers want to know about quality, and they want to know what a contractor recommends.

“That’s just the opposite of what home centers are doing because they’re promoting price,” Shaw adds. “And there’s a lot more creditability when a plumber who’s been using the product for maybe 15 years says, ‘This is what I recommend.’”

This credibility factor is exactly what we uncovered in a survey we conducted last year. Despite the increasing long shadow cast by home centers, a contractor’s recommendation on which brand of faucet to install remains a big plus to consumers, particularly during routine service calls:

  • 80 percent of our respondents said their faucet picks were “usually” accepted by homeowners, during service calls.
  • 23 percent indicated their recommendations were “always” accepted during service calls.

    To put a different spin on these findings consider that only 8 percent of our respondents said homeowners always made the decision by themselves.

    In terms of bathroom remodeling, the numbers are just slightly less in favor of a contractor’s credibility:

    • 80 percent of our respondents said their faucet preference was “usually” accepted by homeowners.
    • 14 percent indicated their recommendations were “always” accepted.

    We mailed this survey to 1,000 of our readers who identified themselves as regularly performing service/repair and remodeling work. Our response was a healthy 24 percent.

    Reputation Matters: Like Shaw, Henry “Cookie” Gonzalez has also felt the impact of home centers on his business. Tampa-based Henry Gonzalez Plumbing Inc., for example, used to operate a showroom. But over the past couple of years, Gonzalez has had to learn how to rely less on the walk-in consumer business the showroom generated.

    “There’s been a big transition,” Gonzalez says. “Hardware stores in the past limited their plumbing selection to washers, small faucets and that type of thing. They didn’t sell fixtures, bathtubs or water heaters. Now the big home centers carry anything and everything.”

    But while business may not just walk in the door, Gonzalez’s reputation hasn’t diminished any. Think the faucet market is all retail now? Think again. Slightly more than half of our respondents said they were installing more faucets today than five years ago. Almost the same percentage said they’d be installing the same amount in the 12 months ahead. Just 4 percent said they’d sell less.

    By far the quality of the product was the most influential reason our respondents gave for recommending a faucet to a consumer. Price, while making strong showings as a second and third reason, received only a 1 percent rating under our “most influential” ranking.

    “You have to sell your knowledge, intelligence, your on-time capability, your dependability,” Gonzalez adds. “We market strictly on our reputation — our ability to perform any job, our credit worthiness and the fact that we’ve been in the business since 1929.”

    The single best way for plumbing contractors to hold their ground against home centers is to continue to garner good word of mouth. That, says Gonzalez, is what has helped his business stave off the competition.

    “Our plumbing license give customers a level of comfort,” he adds. “They say to themselves, ‘He’s been here a number of years, I have a one-year guarantee from him and if I have a problem with it, I can call him and he’ll deal with it.’ Whereas most times, home centers say, ‘We can only warranty the product, not the workmanship.’”