When Amazon.com bought Tool Crib of the North last year, it raised a lot of eyebrows. Most of us who know anything about Amazon think of it as an online bookstore. So how, we asked ourselves, did they decide to get into the tool business? Let's face it, the difference between a table of contents and a table saw couldn't be more dramatic.
|Joe Galli, president and COO of Amazon.com, former Black and Decker president and all- around tool guy
The picture becomes clearer when we realized that Amazon.com's president and COO (chief operating officer), Joe Galli, is the former president of Black and Decker's Worldwide Power Tools aand Accessories group and oversaw the revival of DeWalt. He's a tool guy both in profession and in spirit. He grew up helping his father in the family's auto salvage yard, so he's always worked with tools. "My first love was tools. My new love is the Internet," says Joe.
It turns out that the founder of the company and Time Magazine's Man of the Year is also "one of us." Says Joe, "Jeff Bezos, our founder, is a tool freak. The guy collects tools. He loves tools."
So a bunch of tool guys decided they wanted to sell them through their web site. The next step, according to Eric Broussard, Home Improvement general manager for Amazon.com, was finding the experts. "Getting into the tool business required us to leverage some very in-depth expertise," says Eric, "and that's where our work with Tool Crib of the North came about. We felt that an alliance with Tool Crib was an alliance with the best power tool catalog in the market, along with some great people, great customer service as well as a great customer base."
Earth's Largest Selection of Tools
The bigger issue is: why buy tools on the Internet at all? Eric says the Home Improvement market is under-served and the Internet ? and Amazon.com's services in particular ? can answer some of the problems tool buyers run into.
First and foremost, there's selection. Eric took Tool Crib of the North's inventory, put it up on the web site and added thousands of tools that the company never could have fit into its catalog. Eventually, he says, he wants to create "the earth's largest selection of tools and equipment" onAmazon.com's Home Improvement site.
Joe says that their business also allows them to offer tools that woodworkers can't always find on the shelves of many retail tool dealers. "One of the things we find with woodworkers is that they really want quality," when they look for tools, he says. But a lot of the high-end European tools are difficult to find at the big box stores. The manufacturers of these tools (for example, the Lamello plate joiner) won't spend the money it takes to get their tool on the shelf, but can easily offer it through Amazon.com because there aren't any shelves.
There's also the Internet's ability to inform while it allows you to shop. If you walk into your local tool superstore, you look at the tools and ask the salespeople specific questions. You aren't necessarily going to ask "is this a good product?" because you know the salesperson's agenda is not the same as yours.
But what if you could ask the closest 10 customers in the store, all of whom had purchased this tool, what they thought of it? You'd expect them to answer truthfully, because they have no real motive to do otherwise. That's what you can do on Amazon.com's site: find out what other people think about the tool you're looking at.
I used [the same saw] for 30 years without changing. But the first time I pulled the trigger on this saw, it was clear that the sheer power was going to make for accurate cuts and pleasant work.
-Comment from tool buyer at Amazon.com
Amazon doesn't really edit these comments that much, letting the products stand or fall on their own merits. Tool buyers are uncommonly frank and forthcoming about tools they are happy with, tools they are sorry they purchased, and even design elements they would have included. It's not precisely like having Consumer Reports at your beck and call, but having 10 opinions about a biscuit joiner is better than going into the purchase decision without a clue.
"I think that the Amazon.com model of allowing cutomers to vote with their own point of view," says Joe, "is incredibly powerful." Both new and experienced woodworkers can benefit from the views of other passionate woodworkers, suggests Joe, because there are so many tools out there that it's hard work just keeping up with all the information.
Eric thinks that grassroots feedback will eventually help customers get the kinds of tools they want, because tool manufacturers will be getting unfiltered opinions about tools from their customers. "We want to create an environment where the vendor is closer to the customer and vice versa. That way, we can have drastic improvement ? quickly ? of the quality of the tools and the types of tools that are provided to the customers," he says.
Wowing the Customer
Finally, there's a matter of price. Recent discussions on Internet newsgroups expressed shock that Amazon could ship any tool (even a table saw) for $4.95. Nevertheless, that's exactly what the company is doing. Amazon.com can be very price competitive, says Eric, because it avoids a lot of overhead costs by existing exclusively on the World Wide Web. It doesn't need stores, it doesn't need parking lots, and it doesn't need building permits. Its customer service has impressed at least one participant on rec.woodworking. He wrote:
"I recently purchased a 24' ext. ladder from Amazon.com/Tool Crib. The shipper, Consolidated Freight, called to deliver it, and I said I can not take time off from work until next Thursday (8 days later). They said they would have to charge $60 for storage and I said that I would not accept delivery and told them to ship it back. I talked to the people at Amazon (Mike) and they said they would look into it. They called later that day and said they talked to Consolidated Freight and the shipper would not forego its storage charge. Amazon said, if it was all right with me, it would reduce the cost of the ladder ($229) by the amount of the additional charges from the shipper. That's amazing."
So what's next? Eric is talking with Sprint and 3com to set up a system so contractors can order tools right from the job site, using their cell phone. The 24-hour shipping option will save these contractors a lot of time, he says, because they won't have to leave the site and drive down to the store to get the tool they need. "We're very much focussed on what makes sense for the customer on the Internet," says Eric.