(Steve Frawley is president of Emery-Waterhouse, a distributor based in Portland, Maine)

Just-released survey results involving smaller remodelers echo what some of their bigger counterparts told ProSales in 2007: pros say they prefer to buy tools at big box stores.

Steve Frawley However, our research has found that there's still plenty of opportunity for dealers in the tool marketplace--provided you approach it properly. And while you're at it, you can improve your sales of fasteners, blades and other accessories.

We have done focus groups with contractors and asked, "How do you want to buy tools?" They say they want to do more with their primary supplier, which is their lumberyard.

The challenge then becomes figuring out how to market your products. At Emery-Waterhouse, we have created a concept center at our headquarters in Portland, Maine. It's a room that looks like a typical sales floor where we can test the effectiveness of various displays.

As you'd expect, we found that dealers want displays where the products are clean and easy to find--but on the customers' terms. For instance, tools and fastener displays are often organized by manufacturer. But research shows that pros want to see products arranged by category, not brand, and to be able to pick up and handle the products. And by the way: pros also want to see a wide selection of brands, not just one. This could create inventory challenges, but you can overcome that by arranging to replenish your stock on a weekly rather than monthly basis.

The same trend holds true for fasteners, which also tend to be organized by manufacturer. But if you look at products like decking, composite decking and siding, builders want items set up to meet specific applications. By doing that, we've managed in some ways to increase the dealer's penetration in that market.

Speaking of accessories, pros also told us they want to be reminded to order the basics. Sawblades, nails and screws are the types of items builders and remodelers don't think much about until they need them. We've found that customers want you to ask, "Do you need more of X or Y?" Doing so will keep them from running to big box stores and is more effective and well-received than statement stuffers.

One way retailers can increase their odds of winning back customers is through better assortment offerings and merchandising. It may sound simple, but it can be tricky for an individual store to accurately gauge the true needs of its customers because they often lack the perspective and research tools needed to make good choices. Emery-Waterhouse tries to help its dealers get over this through an enhanced service offering called Category Solutions. Through this program, we conduct a thorough analysis of a store, its customer base and its main competitors. Based on our findings, we recommend a mix of products that we feel would be the best fit for that particular store, as well as the best way to merchandise the products.

We recently helped one customer, Marine Home Center on Massachusetts' Nantucket Island, design their display to best merchandise the tools. It's small changes like grouping categories together that can really begin to drive sales, and Marine told us they are already receiving positive feedback from their key contractors.

It is clear that with some planning, some improved displays and a few questions, you can overcome issues of timing and assortment and start winning back valuable sales.