An automated recording on Hayward Lumber's voicemail system informs waiting callers that this Monterey, Calif.–based dealer has one of the largest fleets of delivery vehicles in the state. Those 119 trucks and vans aren't just the most visible evidence of Hayward's presence in the regions its eight yards serve, however. They are also potent mobile marketing tools.

Dealers across the country say the marketing that works best to bolster their reputations with subcontractors and home builders is that which promotes services (like delivery, installation, or product knowledge) that help pros manage their businesses. There is also no substitute, say dealers, for the “marketing” their outside salespeople do every day by lending support to pros and spreading the word about their companies' products and services.

Hayward Lumber recently began implementing a system that tracks housing permits so that its 44 outside salespeople “can call on anyone who's pulled a permit in our market,” says Paul Rodriguez, who manages Hayward's yard in San Luis Obispo, Calif. “We don't do any conventional advertising because we are always going to their doorsteps,” agrees Steve Haynes, general manager for Overland Park, Kan.–based McCray Lumber, which employs 60 salespeople for its eight yards.

Contractors and builders favor dealers with which they can establish personal relationships, and are receptive to marketing that reinforces this bond. “We're not doing anything magical; we have good road sales and the best delivery system,” says Robert Plummer, president of Edwardsville, Ill.–based R.P. Lumber, whose 31 locations are supported by 60 salespeople and 297 vehicles, including 60 boom trucks and 100-plus flat-beds. Eight-yard Burton Lumber has 27 salespeople spanning its Salt Lake City market, looking for new business and probing current and potential customers about their needs. “You can't just sell on price anymore,” says president Jeff Burton.

Direct Hit While delivery vehicles and salespeople are the centerpieces of many dealers' marketing efforts, they can't be everywhere. Conventional advertising helps, but varies in its usefulness: Dealers mostly eschew radio, TV, and newspapers because the audiences these media target are too broad, too narrow, or too generic. On the other hand, R.P. Lumber sends monthly eight-page circulars to between 450,000 and 500,000 households. Several dealers say their companies regularly take ads in trade magazines such as Builder/Architect, a B2B for architects, custom home builders, developers, and other residential trades; others sell through their own catalogs. One of the big attractions of trade magazines is that they profile builders. “Builders like reading about other builders,” says Tricia Simon, marketing manager for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.–based Causeway Lumber. And companies want to be in front of that readership, regardless of how large or small it may be. “We don't want to be conspicuous by our absence,” Simon says.

Wichita, Kan.–based Star Lumber recently joined forces with a local developer to buy billboard space that not only promoted the developer's communities (at which many of Star's builder-customers are active) but also the opening of Star's new showroom. Some of the cost of the billboard ad was defrayed by vendors like Andersen Windows, whose products are displayed in the showroom and are being used in the construction of the homes at the jobsites. The logic of this billboard campaign, explains Star's director of sales David Gatz, has been that “If the builder does more business, we'll do more business with that customer.”

For the first time this spring, Waltham, Mass.–based millwork distributor Harvey Industries also leased billboards, which were in six New England towns for two months.

Some dealers are turning to the Internet to reach customers, too. Causeway has been rebuilding its customer database in order to e-mail product alerts to contractors, and this spring plans to launch a separate Web site for its Design Gallery showroom. That site, says Simon, might include interactive features, a listing of preferred contractors, and information such as building-code updates.

A Web site is drawing more business to Harvey's 27 millwork branches, according to business development manager Bill Cottle. He also points to his company's toll-free number and its contractor referral program as efficient means to attract customers. Contractors on the referral list have to have purchased at least $20,000 in materials from the company in the previous 12 months. The list could become the foundation for future direct-mail marketing, which Cottle says Harvey Industries is exploring.

“Direct mail works pretty well when it's product specific and when you're offering specials,” advises Paul Barsa, marketing director for Avenel, N.J.–based distributor Bradco Supply, which mails around 20,000 postcards each month to pro customers in its 12 regions. “The key is repetition; you need to do this more than once before [customers] will come in.”