Velux America is designing a new generation of skylights, and it's using its dealer base–from warehouse giants to large pro dealers–as a "touchpoint," says director of sales Stephan Moyon, to determine the strength and shape of those products' packaging.

Toolmaker Positec recently chose a new hardware store in Litchfield, Ky., called Future Designs, to evaluate the sales and returns on Positec's new 40-tool Rockwell Shop series. That dealer buys through distributor Moore-Hanley, and "you want your distributors to feel important," says Eric Moore, a marketing manager for Positec. The company will ratchet up this test later this year when it rolls out its Rockwell lines to the 86-branch McCoy's Building Supply Centers–another Moore-Hanley customer.

These examples show how dealers are serving as conduits for manufacturers that want to introduce new products to the market and are looking for clues about what contractors want and need. Dealers "are our principal channel to the market," says Brian Greber, vice president of marketing and technology for iLevel by Weyerhaeuser, and they are "where we go to get feedback about problems and opportunities with builders."

Admittedly, such conversations might be occasional, informal, and even rare for those suppliers that would rather get their information from the horse's mouth, relying on direct testimonials from contractors and consumers. Black & Decker, which in the early 1990s famously spent an estimated $100 million to develop and market its DeWalt line of portable power tools, and used The Home Depot and Lowe's as its launching pads, now prefers to "talk to the end user" at different jobsites about products, says its spokesman Roger Young.

But other suppliers will turn to dealers to corroborate their own research and for assurances that they aren't missing something in the field. For example, dealers conveyed to iLevel their customers' preferences for an open flooring system in new-home construction that would make installation of ductwork and plumbing go faster. That input, says Greber, helped spur the supplier's recent introduction of a trimmable floor joist, called TJO.

Several years ago, iLevel brought out a ready-to-install seismic panel after dealers in California informed the company about requests coming from local contractors in earthquake-prone areas. That kind of localized information is gold for suppliers looking to develop market-specific products. Andy Karr, vice president of marketing with SilverLine Windows and Doors, recalls how Atlanta-area dealers, such as Ply Mart and Robert Bowden Inc., were instrumental in shaping the design of a construction-grade vinyl window for single-family homes that his company launched several years back. Input from dealers and contractors, says Karr, affected the size and configuration of the window's J-channel and intermediate jambs.

This kind of give and take often continues after the product comes out, too; Moore says Positec is bringing out a circular saw that's three pounds lighter than a model that contractors had told dealers was too heavy.

But the mother lode for suppliers could be dealers that offer installation services, because they can comment about the product and its usage. "They are of more interest to us," says Velux's Moyon.

Guardian Fiberglass can draw upon the experiences of 270 dealers enrolled in its turnkey insulation installation program whenever it wants to try out something new, says Dan Olmer, Guardian's vice president of retail sales. The supplier has used some of those dealers to test new software for takeoffs and its Perfect FILL blown-in sidewall insulation. "Insulation is on the front burner for builders because of energy conservation," and the best way to reach those builders, says Olmer, is through the dealers they contract with to help construct their homes.

–John Caulfield