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The shopping season

April 1, 2004 By    

Ah, spring. Especially when it arrives on the heels of a frazzlingly long heating season, there’s always something therapeutic about seeing that first crocus bud or hearing a song from the returning robin.

For the propane industry, spring traditionally marks the arrival of the buying season. Diligent propane retailers already are weighing their options for buying product for next winter. Thousands more stroll the aisles at industry trade shows, kicking truck tires, swapping ideas and collecting as much marketing material as they can hold for equipment and services that promise to give them the competitive edge.

There’s an interesting irony in the shopping habits of many of these marketers, however.
As retailers, they justifiably howl when their customers switch to competitors who undercut their propane prices. Too often, these price slashers have driven down their overhead by skimping on employee training or other vital safety steps.

Yet many of the marketers I know are guilty of buying wholesale appliances and equipment with the exact same “Wal-Mart” mentality. They bust a gut to trim every possible nickel, determined to buy from the cheapest supplier, period. Rarely do they consider other factors – such as the supplier’s involvement in and support of our industry – in their decision.

More than one equipment distributor has told me this practice is not limited to scofflaws.
If “big-box” stores continue to reap the benefit of the propane retailers’ business without any return investment, how long before distributors’ financial support for the industry starts to fade?

“Basically, it is a view held by many of my peers, however no one wants to be the one to raise the issue,” one distributor told me this winter. “It’s the old, ‘You can always tell a pioneer by all the arrows in his back’ syndrome. I would rather not attach my name or company to such an opinion and have it published. It probably would not be good for business.”

The National Propane Gas Association is resuscitating discussions about creating a “Gold Star” program to identify responsible propane dealers and educate customers about the hidden value behind those propane sticker prices. Maybe it’s also time for a program to educate dealers about their suppliers.

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