Improved ergonomics and wider distribution are providing electrical contractors with a bigger and better choice of hand tools — and more places to buy them — than ever before.

Today's feature-laden hand tools enable electricians to work more efficiently, comfortably and safely than they could just a few years ago — resulting in greater productivity, higher quality work, less fatigue and less wear-and-tear on joints and muscles. Today's electricians want ergonomically designed tools with cushioned grips that fit comfortably in their hand and maximize muscle power transferred to their work. They want tools that offer lightweight strength and durability. They also want tools that provide them with a wide margin of safety near hot wires and connections.

WHAT CONTRACTORS REALLY WANT

“We want tools with high-voltage insulation on the handles,” said Mark Tibbetts, chief executive officer of Tibs Group electrical contractors in Decatur, Ga., which employs about 100 electricians. “It's important for our people to have extra protection when they're working near live circuits.”

Tibbetts said hand tools are becoming more flexible.

“Three-in-one tools reduce the number of tools an electrician must carry. They eliminate hand motions and switching tools when going through a repair or installation process. Strip, cut, crimp all with the same tool. That's nice.”

The increased use of lightweight, durable materials coupled with innovative designs have resulted in the development of individual tools, combination tools and families of tools that accomplish a specific task or series of tasks.

“Electricians want tools that don't twist or strain their wrist, arm or elbow while getting the job done,” said Gary Lalla, Greenlee Textron's marketing manager for electrical construction and maintenance. “Tools with comfort grips and designs that require less strength to operate are popular with older electricians.”

The trend today is toward lightweight, durable materials such as aluminum, magnesium, titanium and chrome vanadium rather than drop forged steel. “Electricians are willing to pay a premium for stronger, lighter tools made from these materials,” said Bruce Hartranft, business unit manager, Ideal Industries Inc., Sycamore, Ill.

Paul Puleo, president of All Phase Electric and Maintenance, Tampa, Fla., which employs 170 electricians in the field, considers hydraulic equipment in the hand tool family. “If you can pick it up and carry it, it's a hand tool,” he said. “Hydraulic hand tools — electric and manual — are getting more innovative, creative and practical. We use them to cut and pull cable and to compress lugs onto wires. They save time and enhance safety.”

NEW TOOLS FOR NEW TECHNOLOGIES

While electricians continue to get the job done by applying the same techniques as they have for many years, new technologies and work methods are entering the picture.

Electricians are using new devices to analyze power quality, said Robert Baird, vice president, apprenticeship and training, standards and safety at Independent Electrical Contractors, Inc. (IEC), Alexandria, Va. “They're installing, upgrading and repairing hard wired and fiber-optic data communication systems,” Baird said. “They need new instruments to measure signal strength and signal degradation in glass and copper.”

Electricians are also working with new signaling technologies, building control systems and renewable energy systems such as fuel cells, wind turbines and power cells for electric vehicles. “They need specialized tools for each,” Baird said.

Tool manufacturers like Seatek Co. Inc., Stamford, Conn., are aware of this need. “Electricians are becoming more involved with the installation and repair of security and data communication systems,” said Lucien Ducret, the company's general manager. “We've been following this trend and are developing new tools for this type of work.”

And at Tibs Group, Tibbetts is beginning to see communication- system tools in the hands of his electricians. “Wire snips and other tools that communications people use are finding their way into our electricians' tool pouches,” he said.

Tool manufacturers know that the basic contents of an electrician's tool pouch has not changed much in 20 years. They see younger electricians and apprentices leading the way when it comes to trying out new tool designs and applying new methods and techniques in the field. They also realize the benefit of establishing brand loyalty for their tools early in an electrician's career.

“This new generation of electricians is our greatest key to success,” said Glenn Morgan, director of sales and marketing for electrical markets at Anglo American Enterprises Corp., Somerdale, N.J.

“It is important for us to show them how they can have a long and productive career by using the proper tools. New electricians are still open-minded when it comes to trying out innovative tools that feature new designs and capabilities.”

CONTRACTOR FEEDBACK

Tool manufacturers frequently turn to electrical contractors as a rich source of product performance and development information. They rely on electrical contractors to test prototype designs and provide solid information on how to improve existing products.

During the development process, manufacturers also use focus groups, surveys and anecdotal input from tool users and members of their sales force.

Mark Babcock, national sales and marketing manager, electrical products, at The Stanley Works, New Britain, Conn., said his company has a “discovery team” that crosses all trades and industries to seek out ideas for new tools and tool improvements. “The team travels throughout the world to learn everything possible about the tools people use, why they use them, how often they use them, what went into their selection and how a particular tool can be made better,” Babcock said.

Last year new products generated 21% of The Stanley Works' sales. The discovery team played a part in influencing the development and introduction of the majority of those new products, Babcock said.

“My own group works with an electricians' advisory board that helps us to develop and evaluate new and existing products and product features,” he said.

The Stanley Works frequently organizes tool nights with electrical contractors. “An important part of these nights is to have everyone fill out a questionnaire so we know what tools and manufacturers they prefer and what types of tools they'd like to see developed,” Babcock said.

Rockford, Ill.-based Greenlee Textron relies heavily on electrical contractors to help develop and test new tools. “We ask contractors to test product prototypes on the job,” said Gary Lalla of Greenlee Textron. “Then we gather information about each prototype's performance through follow-up discussions and surveys. This information goes back to our product management and engineering groups.”

Mark Rolison, electrical distribution market leader at Gardner Bender, Milwaukee, Wis., explains that in addition to focus groups, surveys, contractor nights and other information-gathering methods, it is important for company representatives to visit contractor job sites to get product feedback. “It's impossible to design good tools in a vacuum,” he said. “So we go right to the job site to get first hand input from electricians who are using our tools and helping us to develop new ones.”

Alan Sipe, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Klein Tools Inc., said his company's number one source of customer feedback is the 75 people in the direct field sales force.

“Every day, while visiting electrical distributorships, they talk to 10 or more customers and sales personnel,” Sipe said. “They've generated a huge amount of information about hand tool use and preferences. In addition, every two years the company conducts a blind survey to gather information about hand tool markets and the customer's choice of brands and products.”

BUILDING A BETTER MOUSETRAP

As part of the entire product development and improvement process, manufacturers are very open to receiving inventors' patented designs for new tools and tool features. The process begins when an inventor contacts a manufacturer to offer his/her idea for a new tool. After both parties sign a nondisclosure/confidentiality agreement, the manufacturer evaluates the product's design and manufacturing requirements and determines its marketability and sales potential.

Greenlee Textron's invention evaluation procedure is representative of systems used by most manufacturers. “We are definitely open to receiving patented ideas from electrical contractors, other customers and entrepreneurs,” Lalla said.

“After both parties sign a confidentiality/nondisclosure agreement that covers us and the inventor, and all other legal issues are addressed, we bring the invention in house.

“Products come to us in many forms including drawings, videos, prototype samples and production parts. The more information we have upfront, the easier it is to assess the product and facilitate the overall decision-making processes. If the product has potential, we negotiate an agreement that works well for the entrepreneur and for us. For example, the company could buy the patent from the inventor or the inventor might want to keep the patent and receive a royalty for each tool sold,” he said.

As part of the evaluation process, some manufacturers may ask a focus group to take a critical look at the new invention. Some manufacturers may create a prototype and ask their customers to use it in the field.

Hand tool manufacturers are willing to pull out the stops when it comes to increasing electricians' awareness of their products and generating sales — especially through their electrical distributors.

“The number-one way to move tools is in stand-alone floor displays and counter displays,” said Babcock of The Stanley Works. “We've made such displays readily available to electrical wholesalers. Every Stanley product available to electricians can be marketed on a floor or counter display.”

However, the majority of electrical contractors do not buy their hand tools from electrical distributors. According to The Stanley Works, in each of the last 10 years, electricians have bought progressively more tools from major chain stores such as The Home Depot, Lowe's and Wal-Mart than from electrical distributors. Hand tool sales for electrical distributors typically amount to 1% or less of their business.

“A countertop or floor display that presents a line of tools for a day or week is not going to convince contractors to think of the distributorship as the number one place to buy hand tools,” said Paul Puleo of All Phase.

When tool manufacturers are asked how electrical distributors can increase sales to electrical contractors, the most frequent response can be boiled down into these two words: Better merchandising.

And electrical contractors agree.

“If electrical distributors want to sell more tools, they must do a better job of displaying them,” said Tibbetts of Tibs Group.

“Don't keep tools on a shelf in the stock room where we can't see them. Electricians want to pick up the tools and feel what it's like to use them. Also, an electrician may have just come off of a job. He might see a particular tool on display and realize it would have saved him lots of time and trouble.”

All Phase's Puleo takes it much further: “For an electrical distributor to establish a solid position in the tool market, the company should set up a separate tool department within its operation. And to get my business it would have to provide the same degree of service and expertise that specialized tool companies give us.”

Puleo said the main reason why his company does not buy hand-held electric and hydraulic tools from electrical distributors is because distributors seldom have a staff member who is an authority on such tools. Electrical distributors also do not repair the tools they sell. Also, when Puleo's company purchases these types of hand tools, the tool suppliers that they buy from provide attractive repair and replacement programs and extended warranty packages.

Klein Tools' Alan Sipe said electrical distributors can apply creative merchandising to sell more tools.

“In my experience, electrical distributors have lots of imagination and can come up with some pretty good merchandising ideas,” Sipe said. “We like to customize our promotions to suit each distributor's program. We'll contribute our fair share of money, prizes and displays.”

YOU BE THE JUDGE

Brook Electrical Distribution, Chicago, applies creative marketing techniques to present and sell products. The company recently launched a hand tool test and evaluation program on its Web site called “You Be the Judge.” The program allows participating electrical contractors to sign up for a free product, put it to the test then critique how well the product performs. So far, the program has had a positive effect on hand tool sales. Dawn Villarreal, the company's director of marketing, elaborates: “Testimonials are powerful promotional tools. Our judges are contractors and facility managers whom we work with. They don't hesitate to give a frank opinion about the quality and performance of the products they test. They're believable because they're the guys in the field who use electrical products every day.”

“You be the Judge” has the potential to be a great sales tool, Villarreal said. “It allows customers to view product information and our judges' verdicts. It motivates customers to call us and to check out the manufacturers' links for more information.”

While electrical contractors' consistent need for hand tools remains an attractive potential for sales through electrical distributorships, the vast majority of distributors continue to approach the sale of hand tools as a peripheral part of their business.

Tibbetts of Tibs Group said it might be a good idea for distributors to carry some ancillary equipment.

“It would be more convenient for us, even if the tools cost a little more,” Tibbetts said. “If my employee must go to the hardware store to buy a hammer, it takes an hour out of his day. It's better if he can buy it from the supply house. Time is money.”

Tibbetts said it is unclear how much additional business distributors would receive from customers other than electrical contractors.

“There's quite a bit of competition from the Home Depots of the world,” Tibbetts said.

Babcock of The Stanley Works is optimistic regarding distributors' potential to increase hand tool sales.

“In order for distributors to sell hand tools, their customers must see them as a tool source,” Babcock said. “Some distributors have done a phenomenal job in this regard. I work with some electrical distributors who present themselves as tool distributors. For them, tool sales are pushing maybe about 30% of total sales, and they're turning their inventory eight times.”

THE HAND TOOL MARKET

Electrical contractors are in an enviable position when it comes to buying hand tools. Manufacturers will continue to develop outstanding tools that help electricians work more efficiently and comfortably. They will offer these products through traditional outlets like electrical wholesalers and equipment supply houses. For the most part, however, they will offer them through many other outlets including the “big box” chain stores where market studies show electrical contractors often shop for tools.

Morgan at Anglo American Enterprises said the greatest influence in hand tool sales involves manufacturers and electrical distributors working in partnership to bring the best tools to new electricians and new apprentices.

David Wiesemann, engineering and product manager leader at Gardner Bender said, “The trend in data communications wiring — the installation of coaxial cable, Cat. 5 wiring and fiber optics — will increase the demand for hand tools that electricians need for such installations.”

Babcock at the Stanley Works said the more high-tech electricians become, the more opportunities distributors will have to sell installation equipment for such systems. “More hand tool manufacturers are offering their products to electrical contractors, and electricians have a larger selection to choose from.”

A greater number of electricians are buying from ‘big box’ chain stores, Babcock said. “The more indifferent electrical wholesalers become with selling tools and the more aggressive these other outlets become, the scarier it gets,” Babcock said. “There's a chance electrical distributors will lose it all.”

TOOL FEATURES

Tools with unique designs and capabilities include:

  • Pliers, crimpers and cutters equipped with “robo-grips” that maximize hand strength, “pump-pliers” that can be adjusted with one hand in tight spaces to get a firm grip on different sized nuts and bolts and pliers that can be locked into position for repetitive work.

  • Adjustable wrenches with jaws that maintain micrometer-like accuracy, insulated screw drivers and other tools rated to protect against 1,000V of power, adjustable pliers and wrenches with smooth, clean jaws that will not scratch or mar soft materials and anti-vibration hammers.

  • Hand saws with high strength, longer-lasting blades that cut clean and fast in both directions.

  • Abrasion-resistant Mylar-coated measuring tapes that can stand straight out as far as 11 feet without support.

  • Combination tools include: Multi-task tools that do a variety of jobs like strip and cut wire, crimp connectors and pull fish tape; pliers/wrench tools that incorporate the best features of an adjustable wrench, with jaws that open like pliers; and pliers that can clamp work in place and serve as a third hand.