Thinking Outside Of The Box

Sandor Epstein was a toolman from the beginning. He started out as an independent mobile tool distributor under the flag Tools on Wheels in 1980. He soon became frustrated when the demand for tools and equipment outpaced the time it took to do business—he literally couldn‘t see enough customers in a week to fulfill demand in his territory. Epstein thought to himself, “I have to change my direction.”

He ran Tools on Wheels for three years until he came up with a way to fulfill all of his customers' needs from one location (now two). His dream was to provide both two-step and three-step distribution, not only to his current customers, but to a wider audience as well. He accomplished this while still extending the personal interaction and customer service he had as a mobile tool dealer.

It’s About The Appeal

Now the business, Eppy’s Tool & Equipment Warehouse, provides customers with four options to access their inventory and interact with the company:

  • At two locations, one in Brooklyn, NY, where the headquarters are located, which is a full-service warehouse and store, and Howell, NJ, which is a full-service store.
  • Their website, www.eppys.com.
  • The Mechanic's Tool Club, Eppys' VIP buying service, which fulfills both two and three-step distribution via their website and other promotional items.
  • Through a catalog.

Epstein says his business is a work in progress: "We have a loyal customer base, and it’s continuously growing.” With the various channels Eppy's offers their customers, they've opened themselves up to more prospective buyers than Epstein could've ever serviced with one truck. While www.eppys.com was launched in 2001, Epstein says, "We've had the domain name since the Internet just started to evolve." Lauren Nicole, marketing manager, adds, “We started out with just an informational site. Now it’s more like a click n’ mortar website.”

On the store side, a multitude of various brands, sizes and categories of tools and equipment are stacked and organized in glass displays or neat rows on shelves. “It’s like coming to Baskin-Robbins, but with tools behind the glass,” Epstein mentions. “Guys like to come in and see, feel and touch the tools. It’s much different than browsing through a catalog although the convenience of a catalog and website does come in handy when customers are spread out across the nation."

It’s About The Organization

With more than 20,000 SKUs (and an availability of 100,000 within a two to three-day window), Eppy's employees must be able to easily and quickly locate a tool to get it to their customers. Eppy’s has integrated custom-written software into their tracking system. “We’re constantly upgrading. In fact, we got a new system in August to streamline both locations into one. If I can’t get it, you probably don’t need it. There’s very few tools we can’t source.”

Along with an advanced software program, Eppy's employees also group like types of tools and equipment together so their customers can easily navigate around the store, not to mention compare features and price factors. Furthermore, they stock seasonal products in the back of the store, such as A/C products during the summer months, furthest from the entrance in order to generate interest in other products as customers walk through the aisles. Lauren says, "It's like a candy store for tool lovers."

Eppy's employs 16 people, three in Howell, NJ, and 13 in Brooklyn, with a couple employees who work at both locations. While both locations serve Mechanic's Tool Club members and other types of customers, the Brooklyn location also handles the administrative, logistical and marketing functions of the business.

In Brooklyn, the building is sectioned off by department—marketing, warehouse, executive, shipping/receiving, showroom/store, tool repair center, warranty center, and the technology center that holds a website work area and catalog production area. Eppy’s keeps everything in house to drive overhead down so they have the ability to pass those savings on to their customers. All of these areas are accessible to customers, too, so they can peruse the displays and even walk behind counters feeling at ease.

The Eppy's crew decided to split the original structure down the center to make room for both the warehouse and a showroom. While the shipping/receiving dock is located right outside of the warehouse, all the paperwork is completed upstairs.

Along with the new setup came a new training room. "We provide product training seminars—in fact, we conducted a seminar with MotorVac Technologies not long ago. These seminars are categorically specific, but we don't cater to specific tools. We tie a 10 percent discount in with sales for attendees, but we don't make it all about selling tools. And these seminars sell out all the time. We require reservations, but don't charge a fee. The scheduling and setup can take a lot of work, but it's worth it to cement our relationships with customers."

It’s About The Employees

“We don’t only sell the tool. We know what it is, and we know how it works. Almost all of our employees have some sort of automotive background. Not only can we sell you what we have, but we can also get you what you need. We have the availability to bring new tools directly to the user when they first enter the market. That‘s how my loyal employees help me retain loyal customers. It‘s all about service and keeping my customers forever.”

“It’s hard to get good, qualified people to open more locations, but we will. I'm lucky I have knowledgeable staff and good people working for me." Michael Alcamo, manager of the Howell location, has been working at least part-time since he was 13 years old; he now has 12 years with the company. Keith Guttman, general manager of both locations, has been working at Eppy's since he was 16; he now has 21 years with the company. “A lot of our regular customers check out the website, then give us a call to talk to their favorite salesperson or someone they've spoken to before and whom they trust,” chimes in Lauren.

“Here’s a good example of what’s great about retaining my employees so long—if a customer called 10 years ago and talked to one of my employees, the probability is good that if that customer called back today and requested to talk to the same person, he or she would still be here. I especially like when people come see us and get a feel for us,” Epstein marvels. Lauren adds, “We consider ourselves a small business, and we are very family-oriented.”

The Mint On The Pillow

“You’re missing the glue without customer service. Our customer base is probably close to filling up a ballpark." Epstein says, “I also have a great relationship with factories. That‘s one of the reasons we can turn tools around a lot quicker for our customers.” Eppys' line card includes approximately 40 major manufacturers, and about 70 altogether. In order to stock product, “We talk to our customers, and we confer with each other,” Epstein says. “If a new product excites me, I try to bring it to our customers. I’m a tool guy, and so are they.”

Eppy's can turn around 95 percent of their website orders immediately, while the other 5 percent consists of overnight shipping and specialty orders. And to generate interest, Eppy’s discloses weekly specials—often a good way to get new product out. It's Lauren's job to send up to 2,000 faxes and e-mails about specials on certain products to their Mechanic's Tool Club members each week and produce renewal notices when memberships run out. Stephen Lieber, who has been with Eppy's for 22 years, handles the layout and design of all catalogs and specials.

“We like to give things away that have our name on it,” says Epstein. Eppy's hands out sweatshirts, hats, T-shirts, etc., which is an innovative marketing tool that helps to create brand recognition, and Eppy's has definitely made a name for themselves. Lauren says, ”When we go to shows, we see people wearing hats, T-shirts and hoodies with our logo on them, and some times we don’t even remember having them in the first place. It's vintage Eppy‘s.”

”Our track record for 22 years is an enormous factor, especially in regard to customer service," Epstein says. "Our customers have confidence in the brands we sell because of their quality. The brands we sell people know and trust. If I tell a customer I think a tool is good—and I stand behind my products, and they believe in Eppy's—they're going to buy that product."

Alcamo chips in, ”We like to try to be more service-oriented. We match prices and offer 10 percent discounts on already discounted prices seasonally.“ In addition to exceptional customer service, you can find the Eppy's crew lending tool advice at trade shows. They also provide race car sponsorships, vocational school programs and scholarships. "Attracting young customers ensures a customer base that will last. These customers grow to trust you and become loyal customers in the future," Epstein explains.

“I’ve always wanted to be in control of a small, yet strong business, surrounded with good people, and now I’ve got it.” Epstein compares his once one-truck operation, Tools on Wheels, to his current business: "It's like having 20 tool trucks backed up next to one another with different merchandise on each." And now, rather than living by the limits imposed on distribution, Epstein moved his business from the box of his tool truck to a store, from a store to a catalog, from a catalog to a virtual store, from a virtual store to a tool club, and he’s brought it back full circle with a second store location. His thriving business is dispersed throughout many channels—now that’s thinking outside of the box.

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