With homeowners doing more repair and remodeling work than ever in this difficult economy, plumbing suppliers that cater to the do-it-yourselfer by offering technical advice as well as fixtures have been surfacing in the Washington area to compete with the big chains.
"It's an alternative to Dart Home or Hechinger's, which generally offer just a high school kid behind the counter and low-quality plumbing supplies," said plumber Terry McCumber, who opened Acker Brothers in 1977 with several co-investors and now has two locations in Gaithersburg and Kensington.
Staffed entirely by plumbers, Acker Brother specializes in showing homeowners exactly how to make the needed repairs -- selling them the parts, and even lending them the tools if necessary. After a slow start five years ago, business has tripled, McCumber claimed.
"We'll take a toilet model and show you how it works and then how to fix it -- in about 10 minutes," he said, insisting that he's "never had any trouble" with the return of tools.
"It gives people one more reason to come back in the store," he said. "They get into the business that way. Pretty soon they're going to replace that vanity, and that's what we want them to do." Acker Brothers' main profits come from the sale of high-quality vanities that can't always be found in the chain stores, he added.
Because most do-it-yourself operations are small, low-volume businesses, their owners usually have plumbing contracting businesses as well, or suply in larger volume to the wholesale trade. But homeowner demand for their services is growing.
"Hechinger's and Sears are stocking a lot more plumbing supplies and don't have people to give advice," said William F. Collins Jr., whose Bethesda plumbing firm opened a retail shop called Elmer's six years ago.
"We had people coming in off the street asking for parts," Collins said. "We do a lot of service in residential houses so we had to stock the inventory anyway. We felt it wouldn't do any harm to have the store... as a convenience for our regular customers."
While Elmer's is doing "pretty well," Collins added, "It isn't our main business.... We don't depend on it." Unlike Acker Brothers, Elmers' sales personnel are not plumbers, but can get technical advice from the plumbing firm located in the same building.
For some plumbing suppliers, the move into the homeowner trade has been a matter of natural progression. At Block's Plumbing and Heating Supplies in Arlington -- a firm with nearly a 30-year-history -- assistant manager Mike Cooper said more owners are coming in "because plumbers charge $40 to $50 even for easy jobs." Known for its large stock of plumbing parts, obscure as well as common ones, Block's found itself with a respectable clientele of do-it-yourselfers who had been referred by wholesalers. As a result, it now rents (but does not lend) major tools like cast iron cutters and socket wrenches, and finds itself selling not only to men, the traditional home repairsmen, but also "a good amount of women -- more than before."
Apex Plumbing Supply on Rhode Island Avenue in Brentwood is another long-time firm where business is now about 60 percent retail and 40 percent wholesale, according to salesman Allen Young, with the shift toward the homeowner "beginning five or six years back."
On weekends, Young said, there are often "30 people in front of the counter at a time, all day long, all homeowners. The worse times get, the busier we get."
The salespeople are "not plumbers, but they're all close -- familiar enough with the materials to answer any question the homeowner might ask," he said.
What jobs are homeowners attempting most? Replacing faucets and sinks, repairing P-traps under sinks, fixing toilets, redoing tile work -- "any small jobs that wouldn't be cost effective to have the plumber come out," Young said. "A washer costs 3 cents. But the bill might be $60 to have the plumber come."
Many other homeowner-oriented plumbing stores are also scattered around the area, and Washington has already had its share of those that have opened and later gone out of business. Their competitors blame the failures on poor business practices and inability to give solid technical advice. Without the advice, they say, it's hard to compete with the big chains.
"We try to be competitive," said Block's Cooper. "But there are some things Hechinger's can buy 20,000 of that we can only buy a hundred of."