It’s that time of year when things break down, often at the most inconvenient time. Upon returning home from vacation last week, my hot water wasn’t working up to par. So what’s a single mom to do? I called in the neighbors, and then I decided to head online to see what I might be able to figure given that it was Sunday and none of my usual repair folks were available.
Call in the plumber
Even before I started, I called the plumber to cover my bases and prayed. He was willing to come out first thing in the morning. If it didn’t work, he would pick up a new water heater from a local plumbing supply house. Unfortunately, his quick fix didn’t work, and I found myself in one of home improvement’s most common quandaries—spend a bit of money for a replacement part or make a much larger investment in a new hot water heater. The biggest challenge I experienced was fitting my needs into his schedule and his inability to complete the task in a single day.
Being a list maker, I made a quick list of retailers I could look at that might be able to solve the problem. Just in case, I started, like most, with a generic Google search with, “How much does a new water heater cost?” And after a few moments, I could see that I’d be looking at least $1,000.
Doing my homework would give me a chance to assess both brands and products along with installation options. But most importantly, it would let me know what was in stock—ideally for same-day delivery—or worst-case scenario, next-day delivery. The questions I hoped to get answered were as follows:
- What brand should I buy?
- Which product best suits my needs and budget?
- Who has it in stock?
- What kind of warranty makes sense?
- Do they offer installation?
- Bottom line: Which retailer is best suited to do the job and who can I trust?
That is where guides and category content can come in handy, particularly when your plumber is probably asleep. The content were an important source of education, helping me to answer these questions. Once I got a quick education, I was ready to move on, adding a 50-lb. gas water heater to my shopping list. I took advantage of my plumber’s initial visit to learn that he recommended A.O. Smith or Bradford Mason, so I followed his lead and narrowed my choices to A.O Smith, which seemed more readily available, though other retailers obviously had their own brands of choice.
The word-of-mouth factor
Immediately after discussing my dilemma with my coworkers, I heard several stories worth sharing and they also shaped my thinking as I went about my research.
The first involved a woman looking to buy a dishwasher that went haywire over the holidays. Being a savvy shopper, she was hoping to get a Black Friday deal. Turns out she ended up shopping at Home Depot after also looking at Abt. She called the store and also looked online to do some price comparison. She ended up placing an order online with Home Depot and followed their prompts to choose an installation day via their calendar scheduling tool. They let her know that they would call beforehand with a two-hour window. She did specifically mention that there were many reminders along the way.
Two guys arrived and, unfortunately, they couldn’t make it work because of an issue with the plumbing configuration that didn’t reach, and they suggested she get a plumber. When asked if she still wanted the dishwasher, she accepted and they left. The installation guys said she’d have to go to the store to get a refund for the $79 installation and $20 haul away. The store manager said the system wouldn’t allow a refund to be issued since the installation company hadn’t updated the ticket on their end to reflect an incomplete installation, but that they’d give her a call when it got straightened out. She called the store again, months later, and a manager reported some IT ticket on the matter and promised to get back to her the next day. They didn’t, so it’s on her to call again, and with $100 on the line, she will continue to pursue. I asked her, would she do it again if faced with the same situation? Her response was she would make her choice on the price of the model as she might ultimately rely on her own handyman to do the job despite the somewhat longer wait.
The second individual shopped online when she was replacing a series of appliances. Because of the investment she was making, she felt it was important to speak with a store associate and see the products in person that she was considering. There was also complexity in that she would require a haul-away. Once she made the purchase online, she mentioned that the most stressful part was scheduling. In fact, she didn’t receive a call until the night before and remembers clearly that her designated time was 6-8, though Home Depot failed to specify a.m. or p.m.
When calling back, she recalls being put on hold for 45 minutes and was told that she would be working with a subcontractor. Most of the installation went smoothly, except the microwave, which proved to be more complicated. The repairmen left and suggested she call a number to finish up the transaction. He said they would refund the installation but clearly the onus was on her, which she found frustrating. Three weeks passed and the refund never came through, with excuses such as “it was not in the notes” and it seemed that they felt she was possibly lying. Eventually, the store put through the refund but she didn’t forget about the experience.
She had an additional experience that took place with Amazon when trying to replace a garage disposal. When checking out, they presented an installation upsell in the checkout flow. The choices then involved location, availability and rates. An estimate of cost was provided, which she mentioned was spot on. They billed all the services at that point, which was convenient, as it involved working with a tenant. The electrician called within two hours and they agreed upon a time. The product was delivered, and the service was completed to everyone’s satisfaction.
The Retailer Roundup
I started with Lowe’s as I knew it offered installation given the signage I had seen when visiting the store to grab a holiday gift. Online, the ad for A.O Smith “Find the right water heater” caught my eye. It led me to a profiler with eight questions that ranged from the length of the longest shower taken to the number of same-time showers taking place in the household.
Their buying guides were robust, from generic water heater buying to learning about the tankless models. How-to’s for gas and electric were also included. The education section on when to replace a water heater and how to maintain a water heater were valuable in my initial search.
The information was helpful, which made Lowe’s an ideal place from which to select the right water heater. But Lowe’s quickly lost out on my business when I learned it would take two weeks to have the water heater delivered.
I began with Home Depot’s FAQs and the “how do I know if I need a new water heater” question. This along with the differences between types put me in a better position to deal with my plumber and the other retailers. They, too, had a project guide for installing gas water heaters, which could come in handy, if one was the DIY type.
Home Depot was the one retailer that attempted to compete with specialists like Abt. Its content education section was adequate. But the site was stellar in offering the ability to filter via guided navigation with a “Get it Fast” option that included same-day and next-day delivery. Installation and replacement was prominently placed in my search results. In particular, its ability to provide “Need it now, same day services, Monday-Friday, in most locations if you request service by noon and live within 30 miles of a Home Depot store” is certainly a differentiator. Once I saw that, I decided to go through the entire process culminating with a request based on an interactive profile of my needs.
An immediate confirmation onsite was forthcoming along with a follow-up phone call within five minutes. While the repair company was professional and seemed competent, it lacked the human touch I’ve come to know in my dealings with hands-on professionals or specialty retailers.
Their focus was very one-stop shopping and everything was included. I give them credit for their diligent follow-up, though it seemed almost robotic. For me, I wouldn’t be likely to choose this option. My sense is that a customer who was new to the neighborhood, didn’t have a plumber’s number handy or had no prior experience with a retailer could find this a very viable option.
I then went to Amazon to ensure the prices I was finding were competitive and, of course, I expected delivery would be fast. Amazon followed a typical virtual model, but I must say I was surprised that delivery was 15 days out, virtually eliminating it from the running as hot water just can’t wait. The site’s interface was efficient and up to its usual standards. Installation pricing was transparent and in line with other retailers. Options to select the date and time were forthcoming in a way that would be familiar to most online shoppers. FAQs answered the questions I had, but it missed the most important detail—timing.
Lastly, I wanted to test the specialists, who in my past experience were willing to hold my hand throughout, taking care of my needs efficiently and with a true customer-centric approach. I was lucky to have Abt as that go-to store. It is an almost one-of-a-kind service and retail institution. I contacted the store and was directed to their HVAC specialist. With just a few questions describing my situation, I was on my way. My contact person emailed and asked if he could give me a sense of what he might recommend in terms of options. I let him know I was looking for the best value rather than the most newfangled. He provided me with a quote that was within $100 of the price my plumber initially suggested. He did inquire where the water heater was located and wanted a picture of the entire space. All of this was accomplished with expediency via email, at my convenience. Their installation was transparent, just in case I wanted to comparison-shop these services, since it likely would be a substantial part of the bill. Most importantly, when I asked about same-day services, he said next day, but in an emergency he would try and accommodate my same-day delivery needs.
When I reached out to Jon Abt, co-president, he shared the retailer’s approach to doing business, reinforcing that: “Abt has become a trusted retailer over the last 83 years by providing the best possible experience before and after a sale. Expert sales assistance before you buy and free tech support when it’s all over. We service everything we sell which is pretty unheard of these days.”
He suggested that Abt offers more products that can be delivered the same day than Home Depot, at least in the Chicago area. “We started the service about a year ago,” he said. “If you live within 20 miles of our store, you can have any UPS-able item delivered the same day if you order before 2 p.m. Knowing the importance of expert service, we started Abt University, particularly as products continue to evolve. We work with our manufacturers on training and technology, and we believe like many things we do, it’s a differentiator in the market. It’s important to get it right and costly to get it wrong so it’s instrumental to have people at the top of their game.”
My appliance bottom line
The bottom line to me was that, if it’s simple with no likely complications, many retailers can service most shoppers. One must be honest in knowing the type of customer they are dealing with as there are retailers who can address these distinct buyer scenarios, leaving room for all to succeed in the crowded appliance selection and installation market.
Where it gets tough is when there are unique services that might produce complications, and it seems to me this is often the case with appliances. Under those circumstances, going the old-fashioned route might matter. I also found in testing a few retailers that there are efficiencies in educational and installation approaches, but the communication with the subcontractors is more self-service and “corporate-speak” than otherwise suits my needs.
My story ends well with the plumber installing a new part, so for now I don’t need a new water heater. The good news is I’ve done my online homework and am in a better position to make household decisions about future appliance and in-home installation. I hope I won’t need to call on that experience in the near future.