Senior Contributing Editor

Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at coryjim@earthlink.net.

Process Trumps Products for Window Customers

Window veterans reflect on the industry's long-term changes

December 27, 2018

Dan Schweihs was working at a manufacturing business in 2009 when he told his boss he was quitting to open a retail window replacement company. “Wow,” says the manager. “I used to think you were a smart guy.” The recession was on, the stock market plunging, and window sales wobbly, to say the least.

Fast forward 10 years: Schweihs is founder and president of Window Universe, a retail window seller with showrooms in 67 markets with installation of products sold online offered at another 35 locations. His blog, The Window Dog, is regarded as a go-to information source by many in the window and door industry.

Different And The Same

Those who’ve been around the industry for at least 10 years invariably point out that the retail window and door business constantly changes: It’s still a Mom-and-Pop industry, but big brands such as Window World and Renewal by Andersen carry more weight than ever before. Window sales, as a more discretionary purchase than roofing or siding, remain more marketing driven.

Modern window products are far more effective than previous versions in helping buildings operate efficiently. “The basic premise hasn’t changed, but the quality of the product has improved so much,” says Jim Lett, owner of A.B.E. Doors & Windows, in Allentown, Pa. Lett, who remembers when the vinyl replacement window hitting the market was “a godsend.”

John Gorman, co-owner of Save Energy Co., in Petaluma, Calif., who’s been replacing windows since 1984, says homeowners “are always going to need someone reliable to do it for them,” regardless of how much time passes. He notes his company’ sales growth from $3 million to $5 million in the last five years. 

The End of Manic Marketing

Window sales have grown steadily since the 2009-2010 downturn. According to 2017 data from the American Architectural Manufacturers Assocation, unit sales in the builder segment increased 6%, while remodeling and replacement sales saw a 2% increase. In the past, customers often bought because aggressive outbound marketing centered around the idea that homeowners could cut utility bills by a third to a half just by replacing windows. 

Modern window products are far more effective than previous versions in helping buildings operate efficiently.

But the product advancements that make windows so efficient are taken for granted today. “Saving money on energy bills never comes up,” says Tony Hoty, an industry sales and marketing consultant and owner of Window Depot in Cleveland. Homeowners used to be shocked at utility bills totalling more than $100 a month. “Today,” Hoty says, “their cell phone bills are more than that.”

Window sales in the current economy continue to grow for the simple reason that old ones fail. Homeowners buy windows when “they look like hell or they can’t open them or the glass is fogged or they’re painted shut,” says Steve Rennekamp, president of Energy Swing Windows in Murrysville, Pa.

But customer expectations have changed.“They’re not open to the idea of a three-hour sales call, three price drops, call the manager, the special deal," Schweihs says. "There was a time when that worked and it still works for some folks. But [now] ... they want clear prices. They want to buy [windows] like they’d buy anything else.”

In the Catbird Seat

The shift of home improvement marketing not only reflects changed buying preferences and a demographic shift underway, it also puts the homeowner in the catbird seat. “They figure out on their own that they want windows,” says John Schmotzer, owner of Metropolitan Window Company in Pittsburgh, now celebrating its 40th year in business. 

Having made the decision, they search online for the company providing not just a suitable product but a painless experience; the purchasing experience trumps the offer for many modern customers. These days, Schmotzer says, an increasing number of people show up in his company’s showroom wanting a peek at the operation before agreeing to an in-home sales visit. That’s why he just spent a quarter-million dollars remodeling it.

And best treat these customers with deference: Hoty says the effort to earn their good will is “a constant tip-toeing around." For instance, in the past, if companies had to reschedule an installation day, someone simply called the homeowner and informed them. Today? Not a chance. “The more forward-thinking companies will apologize and offer the customer a $50 gift card,” Hoty says. Who’d want to risk the negative review

Treat Them Like Gold

Ten years ago, dealers laughed off the idea of online window sales. But now companies such as Window Universe and Zen Windows do it all the time. So why not online giants like Amazon? “This is a ... massive ongoing process with so many components,” says Dan Wolt, who a decade ago founded Zen Windows, which today has 40 active dealerships. "And if anything goes wrong, now you have to service it.”

Wolt cites the logistical complexity of the business—getting windows manufactured, transported, and shipped—as well as the labor shortage as reasons Amazon will not join the industry. “You’ve got to find qualified installers who know what they’re doing,” he says, which many window companies cite as their biggest challenge today.

“[Contractors] treat the installers the same way we treat customers,” Hoty says. “We used to pencil in their invoices: ‘You’re charging me for removing shutters? What’s this extra charge for second story work?’ You’d never pull that today.”

Wolt has also changed his language surrounding those installers: “I call them partners," he says. "I pay them better, I pay them on time, and I never argue with a labor bill ... We operate horizontally.”

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