Type “house plans” into any popular Internet search engine, such as Google or Yahoo, and in less that three seconds you'll be inundated with more than 300 million active links to a variety of online publishers, providers, portals, design firms, and other sources for whole-house and small-project blueprints. That's more click-throughs than there are U.S. citizens.
For Web wonks, that's a search result to applaud. For Corri Coulter, manager of the “e-ffiliates” program at Homeplans.com, a leading home plans provider in St. Paul, Minn., it's a sign that her company's strategy for selling house plans has to change. “The market is saturated,” she says, a dynamic that overwhelms instead of helps consumers, the bulk Homeplans.com's sales base, find the plans of their dreams. “We're now looking for partners that can provide more reach to builders and developers.”
That's a switch, at least publishers that historically rely on consumer and owner-builder business, derived from supermarket newsstand catalogs and, more recently, the Web, to drive revenue.
Homeplans.com's sales mix is just 22 percent pros, for instance, and Coulter and her counterparts at other house plan providers see a relatively untapped pool of potential. “The tide's turning, and we need to acknowledge that builders are looking more to stock plans for design,” she says, as opposed to manipulating their in-house plan libraries or partnering with local design pros and draftspeople to serve increasing demand for affordable mass customization and diverse, regionally appropriate community streetscapes. “It's a segment worth going after with a targeted program.”
To make that strategy successful, Coulter and her ilk would obviously prefer to affiliate with builders directly and will try that tactic. But they also are savvy enough to realize that such relationships aren't easy to establish—and that dealers offer logical channels to make the connection and reap some revenue in the process, as well. “There are very few options for builders to buy plans outside of the [existing] consumer sources,” at newsstands and online, says Jennifer Pearce, associate publisher at eplans.com and Dream Home Source (formerly Home Planners), a printed and online plans publisher owned by PROSALES' parent company, Washington, D.C.–based Hanley Wood. “Lumberyards are missing out on that opportunity.”
Most of them, anyway. Just 25 percent of the largest pro-oriented dealers offer whole-house design services and only 20 percent plan to in the future, according to the 2006 PROSALES 100 Annual Survey of Leading Construction Suppliers. Even then, such services may not even include stock house plans and likely don't reflect online links or portals to home plan providers or some other affiliation with those sources.
For added evidence, an informal straw poll of the 20 largest LBM dealers in 2003 conducted for then–Home Planners found that only a handful offered printed or online access to house plans, and even fewer touted formal affiliations with plan publishers; those that did offer plans tended to allow each of their locations to establish the service independently with a vendor of their choice instead of via a national contract or corporate-level affiliation ... or choose not to offer it at all.
As such, dealers that do offer house plans follow vastly different paths. The tack taken by 84 Lumber, a $3.7 billion, 529-location dealer based in Eighty Four, Pa., that has aligned itself with several plan publishers and maintains strict, in-house control of plan sales and modifications, is quite different than the approach by Lampert Yards, a 39-location, $214 million operation based in St. Paul and one of Homeplans.com's e-ffiliates. “We provide a link [to Homeplans.com] and if someone buys a plan through us, we get their contact information,” to follow up on the materials sale, says Pam Leier, vice president of marketing at Lampert Yards.