This article is part of a series of articles educating consumers about common sources of confusion in the countertop industry.
In a nutshell, stone distributors in the countertop industry sell stone slabs to countertop retailers. A retailer is either a countertop fabricator, one of the big box stores, or a kitchen and bath showroom (basically anyone that sells countertops). The retailer sells the installed countertops to you, the customer.
Why, then, are stone distributors competing with retailers for your attention? You’ll see distributor ads online and hear them on the radio, but why are they targeting you if they only sell to retailers?
The role of distributors in other industries
If you Google “who sells shoes?”, you may return results for Nike, Foot Locker, and Zappos— a manufacturer, a retail chain, and an e-commerce site. Standard stuff.
One company you WON’T see in your search results is Caleris Inc., the largest footwear distributor in North America. You won't see Caleris because Caleris doesn’t want to sell you shoes. After all, you’re not their customer; the retailer is.
As tried and true consumers, we all know that it’s the retailer’s job to spend the marketing dollars, invest in expensive showrooms, and employ friendly salespeople to attract the end consumer. Why are distributors in the countertop industry spending money to get you into their showrooms if they won’t sell you the products (or even give you pricing)?
Stone Distributors play a hybrid role in the countertop industry
Distributors in the countertop industry perform the role you would expect of them: they warehouse, transport, and fulfill stone slab orders from countertop retailers, who then turn that material into your counters.
However, unlike in nearly every other industry, distributors in the countertop industry also serve as showrooms where end-consumers can view and select slabs for use in their countertop projects. Distributors take on these customer-facing attributes out of necessity. They play a hybrid role because, in the countertop industry, it’s actually the retailer who doesn’t fit the criteria that we all associate with retail sales.
Countertop Fabricators: Construction trade or retailer?
If you, as a homeowner, desire new countertops in your kitchen, a stone slab by itself is of no use to you. Without the equipment and expertise to turn a slab into the various shapes that make up your countertops, the slab would remain just a 1500lb hunk of stone. If you want countertops, you have to go through a countertop fabricator.
Countertop fabricators also play a dual role in the countertop industry. They are, on one hand, a set of skilled tradespeople and, on the other, a retailer. They work out of manufacturing facilities, usually in the industrial areas of town. Since they’re the only folks with the means to turn stone slabs into countertops, they have an advantage over more traditional types of retailers. You might say they hold a monopoly on countertop sales.
I mentioned earlier that you can buy counters from big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ikea, etc. These retailers, however, won't actually be the ones to create your countertops. They contract with countertop fabricators and mark up a product that you can be buying directly.
When I think of what it means to “retail,” I picture storefronts with well-lit showrooms with products systematically displayed to pike my consumerism. This is not what you’ll find when you visit a countertop fabricator. Fabrication shops are, first and foremost, set up for fabricating stone. If they have a showroom at all, it’s typically a small office with towers of samples.
Distributors want to sell you, not sell to you.
Distributors have what most of us would consider the nicer retail experience, but without the fabricator, their wares are useless to you. That, however, doesn't prevent them from selling you on the benefits of their wares.
If you, the countertop customer, visit a stone distributor before you visit a countertop fabricator, you’re likely to fall in love with one of the distributor’s slab options. Once you’re mentally committed to a certain slab for use in your countertops, you’re unlikely to be deterred by a retailer that might try to sway you to a different option.
By competing for your business, the distributor can ensure that their slabs are used in your project, even if you’re not the party who ultimately purchases the slab. It’s the smart move for stone distributors, but it creates confusion and adds to the headache of buying countertops.