Think of Jay Tompt and Lauren Wagner as a pair of surfers hoping to catch a green wave. Tompt is paddling hard already. Wagner is more cautious but in her situation, she has a right to be.
Tompt and Wagner make their livings choosing products that their companies will distribute. Tompt, vice president for green business development at Plan-It Hardware in San Francisco, comes from a new company that serves an area sensitive to the green movement and that is eager to make itself known as a go-to source for green products. Wagner is supervisor for category management at Do it Best Corp., the enormous Fort Wayne, Ind.-based buying co-op that delivers more than 65,000 products to hardware stores and dealers.
"We say there's a huge segment of the population that wants these products and is willing to pay more for them," says Tompt, whose business is two years old and whose customers are concentrated in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. His company uses the word "green" as a verb in almost all its promotions.
Wagner, whose members work in every state and in scores of foreign countries, sees less magic in the word green. Do it Best's product descriptions instead use phrases such as "Energy Star-rated," "saves energy," "saves water," and "for a safe/healthy home."
"We strive to be an industry leader and first to market," Wagner says. "But we're also conservative to risk."
Talk to a lot of green advocates, and you'll hear a combination of carping about the traditional supply chain and recognition that the movement's products still lack the popular pricing and mass-production capabilities to justify drawing interest from big distributors.
"They're just business people," says John Meggs, owner of Nature Neutral, a Charlottesville, Va., store that sells and distributes green products. "They say, 'If you put this in, how much will people buy?' I say, 'As much as people want. But I don't know [the number].' They say 'You can't supplant something in my warehouse unless you can make me such-and-such money.' Somebody has to put their money where their mouth is, and roll the dice, and see if they can sell it," Meggs says. "If you guess right, you're first to market. If not, you lose money. ? I don't blame them necessarily. That's the way business is."
Tompt is willing to take that risk, but that's because of his market and because Plan-It is a subsidiary of the much-bigger California Hardware distribution company. He now carries about 150 manufacturers, some of them that have never been distributed before. That requires Tompt to be a coach as well as a distributor at times, such as when he counseled a hemp-rope seller who was used to selling his product by the kilogram rather than by the rope's length.
Wagner notes that Do it Best has increased its pursuit of green products. The company has enjoyed success selling nature friendly lawn and garden chemicals, and sales of compact fluorescent lights "are really off the charts," she says.
But a product has to be more than kind to Mother Nature to win the co-op's favor. Merchandising managers are judged partly based on the number of turns for their products in Do it Best distribution centers, so it frowns upon niche products or products that cannot be delivered on a consistent basis.
One thing Tompt and Wagner do agree upon is that their jobs involve education as well as promotion. Every week, Wagner's e-mailed merchandising updates include blurbs on green products, and at the fall show, Do it Best showcased several tables' worth of green goods.
Tompt, meanwhile, has created mini-guides on green issues for stores to hang on their shelves as well as a training program for the distributors' customers. His goal, he says, "is to bring back the old days when the hardware store was a central point of information."