Contractors expect to shift more of their purchases away from big boxes and back toward pro-oriented dealers as the economy improves in the next few years, a recent survey and report by L.E.K. Consulting suggests.

The Boston-based firm's poll in December of more than 500 contractors predicts that channel shifts will occur across all trade categories, particularly roofing, carpentry, paint, siding, drywall, windows, and doors, particularly starting around 2013.

The survey indicates that contractors remained loyal to particular brands even as the housing crunch forced them to seek out cheaper sources for those brands. But given the opportunity, L.E.K. found, contractors are willing to pay several percentage points more for the same product at an LBM operation than what they'd pay at a warehouse store because they value the LBM dealer's service and product knowledge.

Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said they channel shop to find the best price on a particular item. Contractors were willing to let price drive channel selection instead of trading down in name or quality. A channel that preformed extra services was also important to contractors, with 47% giving such as the reason for channel shopping. Lower margins on jobs figured in 44% of the reasons why contractors had been changing where they shopped, while working on fewer jobs was cited 40% of the time as a reason for moving to a different store.

On-hand stock was the most important criteria for contractors when they picked a channel as it was rated a six out of a seven point scale. That top rating was a 16% increase in importance between 2006 and 2010. Volume discounts and rebates also became a bigger factor with a 5.3 rating, which was a 14% rise between 2006 and 2010. Convenience was cited as the main driving force behind 43% of contractors who chose big box stores, while 45% said it was pricing that made them choose the big box channel.

While contractors did channel shop, they tended to hold the different channels to different standards. Contractors were unwilling to go above a 2.2% price premium at big box stores, but gave two step dealers and independent dealers a 3.4% price premium. Those surveyed also gave one step dealers and specialty dealers a 3.2% price premium.

The survey also found that while online sales plays a small role in the channel, it is expected to increase in fulfilling product needs. Its share has doubled since 2006 and contractors are expecting it to further increase in importance.

Those surveyed had to be in business for more than fives years, had to employ at least three workers during peak seasons, and had to be directly involved with the purchasing decisions for their companies. Robert Rourke, vice president and head of L.E.K. Consulting's North American Building and Construction Practice, said most of the contractors surveyed were either residential or remodelers with a few commercial contractors mixed in. L.E.K. released the results of the survey on March 7.