Craftsman Tools — 75 Years Old and Still No. 1

Craftsman Tools — 75 Years Old and Still No. 1

Sears recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of its Craftsman brand of tools. Encompassing over 5,000 individual products, the brand fits into 80 different tool categories. From its beginning in 1927, the brand has been a shop favorite among both amateur and professional woodworkers. A recent Equitrend® survey of 2,000 consumers ranked Craftsman the top brand in America for overall quality. And don’t forget that famous Lifetime Warranty!

How has the brand endured? We asked Andy Ginger, Sears’ vice president of brand management, to talk about the tools that have been hung above workbenches, stored out in barns and in kitchen drawers, and taken to worksites since 1927.

“We started with a basic principle of what we were going to deliver,” Andy explained. “Go back to that 1927 catalog, and you’ll find that the guiding principle … tools manufactured by the world’s finest toolmakers and of unquestionable quality … is the same as it is today.”

Starting with hand tools, the brand quickly evolved and broadened into power tools, lawn and garden equipment, and many other categories. During World War II, Craftsman manufacturing plants switched over to producing torpedoes and submarines, and the Sears catalogs proudly explained that some Craftsman products had gone to war. With the postwar building boom and increased industrialization, much of the Craftsman customer base moved from the farm to the cities. A tremendous amount of technology that was developed during the war was prime for conversion to consumer goods.

“And since Craftsman was a private brand, which already had wide distribution, it was pretty easy for us to bring those new tools to market,” Andy explained. “And that’s the time, during the 40s and 50s, when the brand became pretty ubiquitous.”

In the 70s and early 80s, a new level of quality began to appear in the tool market. According to Andy, there had always been high quality brands, but they were small and focused. Suddenly consumers had access to new mid-level brands or lower price-point versions of high-end brands. What emerged was a relatively affordable category of power and woodworking tools that had a lot of power and a lot of precision. Though Craftsman popularity never really waned, a perception crept in that the brand had not kept up with the new standards.

“We weren’t innovating,” Andy admits. “We waited for other companies to come out with something and then follow along.”

That changed in the mid 1990s, when Sears rededicated itself to becoming a leader in product development and bringing new ideas to market. And ever since 1995, Craftsman has introduced between 75 and 100 new tools each year.

To maintain quality when dealing with so many U.S. and overseas manufacturing sources, and across such a broad range of tools, Sears has established both high individual and high overall line standards. We turned to Jim Davidson, Sears’ engineering manager for handtools, for insight into these standards.

“Even our very biggest manufacturers get quite surprised at how tough our requirements are,” Jim explained. “But by definition, Craftsman brand products have to exceed the industry standard and have to exceed the competition in performance.”

When Sears introduced its most recent “Craftsman Professional” cordless drill line a couple of years ago, Mike Weiby, Sears’ Engineering Manager for Power Tools, benchmarked 20 professional level cordless drills already on the market. They ranked them by performance, performed full tear-down analysis of components and features, and even evaluated how the tool felt when you picked it up. Armed with that information, they were able to put together the most competitive tools and lines of tools. Testing continues after the tool is developed, and since all the Sears engineers and test technicians are also woodworkers, they emphasize practical, real-life use.

As anyone who’s been to a retail store knows, Sears also carries other brands of tools … many of which compete directly with the Craftsman brand.

“We carry the top five or six brands in the tool business, plus some others. Seventy-two different brands were added over the past five years,” noted Andy. “If you’re a user of a particular brand that’s not Craftsman, we’d rather you buy it from us than go somewhere else. It also keeps us sharp and focused to have a DeWalt professional drill next to the equivalent Craftsman. We’d better make ours correctly, or we’re not going to win the transaction.”

And Sears is winning. According to Andy, Craftsman is the top selling tool brand in the U.S., and in somewhere between 85 and 95 percent of any given population segment, you’ll find at least one Craftsman tool in the household.

But with such a wide range of customers, it gets more complicated designing some products. Using his current weekend bathroom remodeling project as an example, Andy noted that his requirements for a router were very different from a cabinetmaker friend who’s building a three-story circular staircase. The company takes input from all kinds of users and ultimately may decide that the one router can’t meet that wide range. And the fact the different models are designed for different levels of use may be the source of some of the misconceptions that some woodworkers develop.

“There have been occasions when serious or professional users have purchased a consumer product and have not had such nice things to say about it,” recalled Jim, “but the problem really lies in that it was not the right tool for them. And we may not have displayed the professional line tool in the right way to get the right tool to the right person.”

Just to get the right information out to so many customers represents its own challenge. Advertising plays a part, but Sears knows that in-store marketing is more important. Tool Territory as a unique department is one attempt. It’s a place where experienced tool experts (not cashiers) can help the DIYer pick up and try out the tools. Craftsman Club with its seven million members offers another channel for communication.

Each month, members (a million and a half are identified as woodworkers) get a mailing with the latest product announcements and ideas from Sears. The Internet has taken on a role somewhat akin to the original catalog (which is still going strong, too). And ordering online doesn’t always mean waiting to receive a shipment. Thirty to forty percent of sales are ordered online but picked up at a store … so there’s no shipping charge!

And, through the company’s close relationship with, it’s also able to provides a wealth of DIY information and step-by-step guidance … sort of an online version of the expertise you used to get from the old neighborhood hardware stores.

And what about the famous “guaranteed forever” warranty for hand tools?

“It goes back all the way to the beginning,” Andy explained. “Basically, every brand of our stature offers a lifetime warranty, but we get credit for it because we were the first and because we’ve done it so well.

In reality, it’s not that necessary, because we have very high quality products. But it’s become more of an emotional connection with our customers for what the brand stands for. And when an old tool does break, we find that a lot of people don’t want to turn it in or exchange it because their grandfather gave it to them. It’s not just a tool, it’s part of them.”

What impact have the Home Depots and Lowe’s had on Sears?

“Clearly, the big box stores have put a big footprint out there, and they are a great place, to go dream about those projects,” Andy noted. “But we’re the place to go for tools when you’re ready to start the project. Through our packaging and signage and loading area, we are trying to be more accessible. Our tool experts are trained to help you figure out what you need. We’re really about empowerment. In the letters our Craftsman Club members send in, sure the tools are mentioned, but at the center is their family and the project they built for them, or the firehouse they remodeled for the community center, or the Habitat for Humanity house they built. We’re here for the project!”

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