Lately I have been thinking about product shelf life. Not so much how long product stays usable while in stock, but rather how long a product remains practical to use in the field. For example, "We have been using this specific primer for 10 years.” My company has certainly adopted certain “staples,” like a restaurant that carries a house wine. For me, it raises the question of how long one product can meet our needs without its formulation being changed or our approaches changing.
I try to look at paint product and tool planning in 10-year chunks — five in the rearview mirror and five out the windshield. It is equally as important to look back over the products you use as it is to look forward in planning them. That can be challenging in some categories because things can change quickly in the product world. One of the goals in my company is to find and test the latest technologies, train ourselves on them and implement them. Lately, however, I have found myself circling back to some of the basic product combos that we used “back in the day.”
In the interest of efficiency and ease of training employees, we evolved into finding products in the critical categories that can be used in both interior and exterior scenarios. It’s hugely important to keep looking at products in prep categories, because efficiency in prep is
one of those make-or-break aspects of painting. Abrasives, caulking and fillers have consumed enormous amounts of my time and attention over the years.
Streamlining prep products worked great for a while from inventory and practical standpoints. Over time, I don’t know whether we changed or they did, but we have scrapped certain products that were winners for years and returned to approaches that we had used previously.
Fillers are a great example. The one that we had been using was great for exterior cosmetic issues, but it started to really cost us on interior filling applications, so we will continue to play to its exterior strengths but discontinue its use on interiors.
Roller covers are another category that seems to have become overengineered and overthought — and therefore pricey. Same with roller frames, both 9" and 18". We have had really bad luck with certain roller-based technologies and dialed that program back to the most basic gear, with very pleasing results.
When you do this, it makes you wonder what other categories need looking at. Currently, the liquid products are under reevaluation in our shop. Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem paying top dollar for premium stuff (in any category), but it starts working against us, that is not OK.
When should you change products?
Sometimes we just get stuck in our ways and stay with a product for too long because it is what we know. You know, “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” Or maybe you just get really good pricing on it because you buy so much of it.
Many times, we change a product because we discover a better one. How do you know when a product is better? It is always best to test products for a reasonable period before taking them out on the job unless you have trustworthy colleagues or some other reliable source who can vouch for it.
Formulation changes are another factor that causes us to change products. These changes may be driven by VOC compliance. That has been unfortunate; many products that were really effective solutions in the past got dumbed down in compliance to the point of being useless.
Value engineering and retail SKU number reductions can also be reasons why common products change radically or disappear completely. And of course, in this new pandemic economy, there are raw material shortages and supply chain disruptions. That said, I
do recommend stocking up a bit more than usual in the inventory department. My area has seen a shortage of applicators, with the prevailing theory that homeowners have bought way more than usual in the past year. Plus, manufacturing of those products would have been shut down last year as nonessential. They ARE essential to us, though. So, make sure you have what you need to do the job this year.
If you don't change products, they might change you
I have always said and written a lot about how product drives process. I remember years and years ago having some fascinating dialogues with the legendary process nut Jack Pauhl about this. It was a major principle in his approach, and I am sure that it still is. And … it is absolutely true. The products you choose heavily impact how you work. If you have never thought about that, it is time to start.
If you have employees, your technicians in the field may be your best resource for information. A good craftsperson can figure out how to make a difficult product work, just like a good musician can play a challenging instrument. But if you or your team are having to create too many workarounds to make a product fit your process, that is a key indicator that it might be time to look at other product options.
This can be counterintuitive because we (and any consumer, really) often live by the old “you get what you pay for,” which suggests that less expensive products may disappoint, while pricier ones should be better. That is easy to prove wrong in many product categories. Sometimes the most common and low-priced roller nap will give you the best results. And sometimes the priciest premium paint will cost you a lot of money to use.
Sometimes it is the fault of the product. Often it is operator error. It really doesn’t matter, though. We choose products; they don’t choose us. Failure to test products and train technicians on their use has to always be in focus. However, if due diligence is done and a product disappoints too many times, it may have to go.
I always end up back at the prep stage and filler category when contemplating product and process. Fillers are not expensive, but they can cost you a lot. When products cause users to have to get too “tweaky” in their approach, profits will usually suffer.
As you consider ramping up for spring, be sure to reflect upon your service delivery and the impact that your product selections are having on it. It is a lot of food for thought, which we all need these days. For example, think about whether what you are putting out to customers is a product or a service. I fall into the camp of “we don’t sell paint jobs, we solve problems and provide a favorable experience.” There
is always something to consider, some way to improve upon that. When I was in my 20s, “they” told me that choosing to own my own business would guarantee me a life without boredom. “They” were right! I think that is what keeps a lot of us in the game.
- Scott Burt
Scott is senior editor of APC and owner of Topcoat Finishes in Vermont. He enjoys communicating with paint contractors at www.topcoatreview.com