I noticed something: We all compete with lowball floor pros, and some of us are victimized by them repeatedly. They may charge half or less of our normal fee, and the work is mostly subpar. Sometimes the work is good, and I believe that those workers in particular are destined to rise above their station in life and make a good run at our trade. I, for one, support them … because I used to be one. Others burn out fast after they realize how much work is actually involved. To them, the siren call of “free stuff” is a powerful drug, and they eventually migrate to greener grass and try their hand at another type of job.
In the meantime, we lose more work to them than we think is humorous. It’s not a joke, and in some areas a true master must contend with compromise just to put food on the table. I remember vividly meeting a few customers for the first time for an install estimate and saying the flooring must acclimate before it is usable. These customers (there were several, at different times) would ask me how long I’ve been doing this, because they were told the complete opposite by ALL of the previous contractors who also submitted a bid for the work (the homeowners had a clutch of quotes on napkins to prove their case—I’m not being funny, that’s real stuff I ran across). I looked like the inexperienced contractor to the customer because they had heard the same bit of knowledge repeated by different “contractors” and I was the odd one out. In short, these underclass contractors condition what our customers come to expect. And when I consider this issue on a nationwide scale, it’s not a far leap to consider that the very fabric of “what is good work” has been reduced far below what we think is acceptable. That’s the point of this rant: The quest for low price is changing the standards customers come to expect. Why pay more? Why would anyone do that?
Today, the customers have settled for this low level of expertise because this is their reality. The contractors lying under the shady tree at the big box stores are sometimes busier than we are! Sometimes they are hired by owners of 10K-square-foot mansions and have no idea what a jamb saw is or proper footwear on the job. Once on a job I ran into some flooring installers wearing polyester pants, button shirts and black patent leather shoes. They were trying so hard to install laminate in a bedroom and had been on the job for four days when I walked in on them. The room was about two-thirds done at this point. This is the truth! The homeowner asked me my opinion, and I asked how it looked to them. The homeowners said it looked fine, and I politely said, “Have a nice day,” and left. I’m not a “Save-The-World” kind of guy. Not my circus, as the old saying goes.
This scenario I am describing is by no means limited to flooring, or contracting in general. The quest for cheaper prices spans across all industries. If you really want a deal, you can have a liposuction service shape your butt by a nice person in an apartment on the low side of town—for a sweet deal off the list price a hospital would charge. You’ve all heard the stories.
While it is outright foolishness to pursue a “deal” on medical services, it’s not as dangerous when you want to find a cheap pair of socks or a better cell phone data plan. There is always a compromise in these cases, and, over time, the compromise becomes the “norm.”
So, what to make of all this?
First, a look at what gave me the inspiration for this observation: a CBS news article published last year about the impact the Dollar General stores have on the grocery business in Moville, Iowa. If we view Dollar General as our underclass competitors, and we are the local grocers as in the article, some striking comparisons appear.
From the text:
“It's one example in a nationwide controversy about the increasing influence Dollar Stores can have not only on where we shop, but also on what we eat.
Moville's Dollar General does not sell fresh fruits and vegetables or meats. But it does have lower prices on just about everything else.
Aubrey asked Davis, "Some people might look at this situation and say, 'Dollar Stores are selling what people want at cheap prices. That's competition—sorry'?"
So, you can see people are actually buying into the new “normal” of non-fresh foods because they are cheaper. The local grocers are being priced right out of their niche—all for the want of a “deal.” In our industry, the customers are being more accepting of “H” joints, edger marks on a dark stain job, cupped boards from no acclimation, caulking stuffed into gaps on boards cut too short to the wall, all sorts of floor failures, etc. Some customers literally think these things are okay.
To make this point absurd, look at this photo of a refinish I was hired to fix. The customers previously made it a point of being “smart” and hired the absolute cheapest contractor they could find. I guess if you look at it a certain way, they won the low-price battle, finding that lowest of the low prices. This result was their reward:
I had to re-sand this floor. The customer ended up not only paying for my service but also paid full price for the original work as well.
In Part 2 of this post, we’ll look at low bidders and what we can do (or not do) about them.