Smart Shopping: Finding the Best Suppliers

Copyright © 2013 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in April 2013, Volume 38, No. 10 of The Engravers Journal
This American eagle resin sculpture is available from Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT, through their 30+ regional warehoues.

   How important is it to find the best suppliers of products and services for your business? Consider the following facts:
• Good suppliers are an award dealer’s lifeline.
• Good suppliers mean getting the best merchandise quickly and with few or no problems.
• Good suppliers mean paying a good price and receiving good customer support.
• Good suppliers mean good business.
• Bottom line? Good suppliers mean success for your business.
   Retailers in the Recognition and Identification industry, as well as any other retail industry for that matter, would no doubt wholeheartedly agree with these statements. There’s no question that suppliers are essential to almost every business. If you don’t have good suppliers, how can you possibly be a good dealer for your customers?
   Of course, the objective of any retailer is to find “good” suppliers. Every dealer has experienced their fair share of horror stories when it comes to dealing with vendors. Like the supplier who promised a ship date and never followed through, leaving the dealer and his customer in the lurch. Or the supplier who sent several boxes of defective merchandise and couldn’t send replacements. Or the supplier who totally mixed up the order, causing headaches for a dealer for months.
   But there are many top-notch suppliers in the industry and when you find them, you’ll no doubt appreciate that these companies can do so much more than merely supply you with the merchandise and materials that you need to do business. They can become your partner and be invaluable sources of information and knowledge.
   So what makes a good supplier and how do you find them? I polled several successful retailers in the industry to see what they had to say about the subject. Let’s start by looking at a couple of familiar supplier categories in our industry.
The Warehouse Supplier
   The warehouse supplier is the large wholesale distributor that sells just about “everything” (many also sell through distributors). This type of supplier, of which there are several in the industry, offers a very broad product selection and a large inventory. Oftentimes, the warehouse operators have multiple branches that products are shipped from. A warehouse supplier might carry award components (figures, hardware, bases, columns, plaque reliefs, plaque boards, etc.), assembled awards (trophies, plaques, resins, acrylics, crystal, etc.), sheet stock (plastic, metal, acrylic, etc.), equipment and accessories (shears, punches, cutters, etc.) and more.
   For example, Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT, is a well-known warehouse supplier to the R&I industry. This company’s 2013 master catalog is 600 pages featuring over 600 new products introduced this year. Marco currently offers over 10,000 items in the awards market.

These crystal Globe Towers are among the crystal products offered by SCT Crystal, South El Monte, CA.

The Specialty Supplier
   The specialty category includes a large number of companies that specialize in selling (mostly) one type of award or recognition product. For example, there are vendors in the industry that concentrate their product lines on one of the following: acrylic, crystal and glass, giftware, medals/medallics, ribbons, wood, corporate awards, engraving material/metal, award components, promotional products or sublimation. Condé Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL, for example, specializes in sublimation supplies, equipment and products while Acrylic Idea Factory, Atlanta, GA, focuses on acrylic products.
   Note, too, that “combination” suppliers also exist in our industry. Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN, is essentially a warehouse supplier as they offer an extensive line of products and services, but they are also a specialty supplier in that their product lines are focused on certain areas of the industry, including engraving (materials, products, equipment and supplies), sign materials and sublimation (equipment, products and supplies).
Which kind of supplier should you choose?
   So is it smarter to shop the warehouse supplier or are you better off working with a specialty vendor? That all depends. Both have advantages to offer your business.
   One of the big benefits of larger, multi-line suppliers is “one-stop shopping.” For example, you can save time and often money by purchasing resin trophies, medals and medallions, engraving stock and cutters for your engraving machine from one source at the same time. You can also order large quantities of items that you sell a lot of and, therefore, inventory. Most of the large suppliers offer volume deals and reduced or even paid shipping on large quantity orders.
   Retailer Jeff Karnuth, owner of aai Trophies & Awards in Plano, TX, says he mostly deals with larger, multi-line suppliers because of the service and pricing they provide, as well as their large inventory. “If you can do most of your ‘shopping’ using one to three suppliers, you can get better deals because of the volume you’re doing with them, which is going right to your bottom line. Saving on purchasing and buying smart is one of the important keys to surviving in this business,” Karnuth says.
   Another advantage of warehouse suppliers is their ability to turn around an order quickly. Ken Braswell, owner of Braswell Trophy and Engraving, West Creek, NJ, says, “My small shop focuses on engraving. For this type of work I rely on a large warehouse supplier as my principal supplier. These are very good people. They allow me to place an order for pickup the same day and don’t have a minimum charge. I also do business with several other industry warehouse suppliers for items that my main supplier does not carry.”

Acrylic Idea Factory, Atlanta, GA, specializes in acrylic awards and offers an exceptional selection.

   On the other hand, since specialty suppliers concentrate their product offerings in a certain field, their selection in that area is usually greater than that of a warehouse supplier and they also often carry a larger selection of unique “niche” products. For example, while one industry warehouse supplier carries one piano finish flag case in two sizes, a specialty company like Lee’s Wood Products, Rocky Mount, VA, stocks over 12 different styles of flag cases in various woods, finishes, configurations and sizes. So what many product specialists do not offer in the breadth of their product line, they often make up for in their expansive line of the specialty items.
   “We do some purchasing from specialized suppliers, particularly for special items,” explains Charlie Drago, owner of Monarch Trophy Studio, San Antonio, TX. “Some of these smaller companies have new, innovative products and this helps us offer more variety.”
   Some specialty suppliers carry products that the warehouse vendors don’t carry at all. For example, most of the large vendors in the industry don’t carry marble award products (except for marble trophy bases) whereas N & R International, Marietta, GA, carries an entire line of natural marble and onyx products that includes awards, plaques, desk accessories, promotional items, bases, cubes, coasters, obelisks, pyramids, boxes, picture frames, bookends and home décor products.
   And if you need a custom-made award from a particular category, you are most likely going to need to work with a specialty supplier. Topmost World, Montclair, CA, specializes in crystal and glass products, and also offers custom design services. “We have our own factories overseas to custom make a client’s designs. We specialize in optical crystal and jade glass hand-beveled and hand-polished production, resulting in gorgeous awards that will be second to none,” says Diana Shih, vice president of marketing.
   Clearly each type of supplier has its advantages and, for most award dealers, that means that working with both types of these vendors has advantages as well.
   Braswell explains, “Besides my principal warehouse supplier, another supplier that I depend on specializes in aluminum, brass and bronze plaques. Their fast turnaround, artwork support and can-do attitude allow me to offer bronze memorials and exterior signage with little risk.”
   Lisa Tanner of Tri-State Trophies, Evansville, IN, agrees. “We do use larger, multi-faceted suppliers for most of our trophy products since we buy in volume and it really helps our bottom line. There are many products, though, that we carry that are not available from these larger suppliers so we do use a blend of larger and smaller, more specialized suppliers,” she says.

Studio Workshop, Inc., Omaha, NE, concentrates its product line on solid hardwood award plaques and trophies.

   Peter Clarke, owner of Clarkes Recognition Products Ltd., Vancouver, BC, Canada, also finds it beneficial to use both types of suppliers in his business. “I have multiple systems in place,” he explains. “Typically, I use major suppliers for retail clients, preferably those near my business. For corporate clients, I go farther afield into the specialty suppliers. For my best clients, I might go to a custom shop. It all depends on the client’s needs. I have a vast selection of catalogs and suppliers that I pull out when I am challenged by a client’s request.”
How do you find good suppliers?
   Fortunately, there are suppliers in the industry that can meet your needs and help your business succeed. But how do you find them? The retailers I spoke with for this article all point to several key resources, including trade associations and shows, trade publications and networking with other dealers.
   Retailers agree that attending trade shows is an excellent way to locate suppliers as is “shaking hands and meeting people.” Stephen Capper, A-1 Awards, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, says, “Attending trade shows and having direct contact with suppliers, both inside and outside of our industry, are good ways to find suppliers. Also, networking with other dealers with whom you can swap ideas and offer and receive suggestions is a must!”
   Peter Clarke relies on referrals from friends in the industry and Internet research. Like Capper, he points out that attending all types of trade shows (both in and outside of the industry) can be a prime way to find suppliers, including ARA, PPAI and gift shows. (Be sure to check Upcoming Events in each issue of EJ for a listing of upcoming shows in this and related industries.) Clarke adds, “I also often see products in other stores when I am shopping and I track down the distributor or manufacturer.”
   Lisa Tanner also points to networking with peers as a way to find good suppliers. “Most of the award retailers we know are generous about sharing information at shows, so definitely attend a show or two and make some friends outside your region so you can connect with them later to ask questions,” she says. However, she points out that it’s important to remain business-like when it comes to networking with your peers. “I have actually had people come into my store and take pictures and notes, and then go into business against me, so I would not recommend doing that—it’s not good business.

Topmost World, Inc., Montclair, CA, carries a complete line of crystal awards, including corporate awards.

   John Stangle, Creative Awards & Screenprinting, LLC, Wichita, KS, also uses several resources to locate good suppliers. “I go to trade shows. I also rely on word of mouth from my peers as well as ads in industry magazines,” he says. “When starting out new, I think the best advice would be to join an online forum related to the type of market you want to target. There are many industry-related user forums for areas like engraving, woodworking, sublimation and screenprinting that have other members who are willing to talk, listen and give help wherever needed.”
   Of course, industry publications are an excellent source for locating suppliers. For example, in addition to the advertisers that you can find in each monthly edition of EJ, we also publish our annual R&I Directory in the December issue and online (visit our website at The R&I Directory features a comprehensive listing of over 1,600 products and services in the industry along with complete supplier contact information to help you find both the products and the suppliers of what you need.
What should you look for?
   It’s easy for businesses, especially new ventures, to focus on one trait when seeking out suppliers and that trait is often price. However, there are several qualities that experienced award dealers look for in a vendor that are often equally as important, if not more so. Here’s a look at some of the main traits that veteran award dealers look for.
   Price—Price, of course, is important when selecting the vendors you will be doing business with. You want to be sure you are getting a fair price and you want to work with suppliers that are able to offer you appropriate pricing and discounts, such as reasonable minimum orders, volume discounts or paid shipping on skid orders.
   Jeff Karnuth suggests that you consolidate orders when you can, such as those you get in weekly, to take advantage of freight deals and volume discounts. “Delivery costs can ruin you if you’re not watching it,” he warns.
   Working with a supplier that offers reasonable pricing makes it easier for you to offer pricing that fits your customers’ budgets. According to Lisa Tanner, “We have been known to get one sample of an item in to show a customer and then need to order 150 of them. If the supplier charges us an excessively high price for the sample, it is difficult to sell that product at a reasonable price, even if we can include that one piece in the larger order.”
   Many suppliers will offer special pricing in certain situations. “Some suppliers have a ‘buyer’s program’ where if I spend a certain dollar amount per year, I will get a favorable price all year long,” says John Stangle. “Also, I look for suppliers that will provide free freight if I have an order over a certain dollar amount.”
   Some suppliers will also work with you when it comes to pricing, says Peter Clarke. “We are in Canada, so shipping across the border is expensive. I tend to deal with the suppliers who do the work required to deliver merchandise here inexpensively. For example, some suppliers charge a fee to do paperwork. The ‘landed’ cost for imported goods can vary between 25 and 65 percent.”

By specializing in natural mable and onyx products, N & R International, Inc., Marietta, GA, is able to provide a number of interesting products.

   Customer Service—According to the retailers who contributed to this article, excellent and friendly customer service is one of the most important attributes to look for in a supplier—perhaps even more so than price.
   “Customer service is probably the most important piece of the ordering process. We have generally enjoyed excellent customer service from our award suppliers for years,” says Lisa Tanner.
   Suppliers with good customer service make the buying experience both easy and enjoyable. Their reps have polite and helpful telephone manners, they are knowledgeable about the products they sell and they are able to resolve problems when they arise.
   Jeff Karnuth explains, “Reps answering phones must have product knowledge. Fortunately, this area has improved over the years. Over the past fifteen years, one rep at one of my large suppliers has covered my rear so many times I have lost count. And her knowledge of products and the industry is fantastic and always very helpful. And she gets the orders correct one-hundred percent of the time. She is the best of the best.”
   “If the customer service representative does not know their product, I won’t have much confidence in ordering from them,” John Stangle adds. “And if a supplier bends over backwards when there is a small problem, I know they will make good on any larger problems that might crop up. In my experience, very few are in this category, but I do work with a trusted few.”
   Reputation for Quality—In addition to fair prices and good customer service, a reputation for quality products and services is also an important vendor characteristic that is paramount to running a successful business.
   “If our supplier doesn’t have good quality products, then we cannot sell their products over time. We will be dealing with returns and refunds instead of making money,” states Lisa Tanner.
   Jeff Karnuth wholeheartedly agrees. “Quality products are a must. Sloppy paint on resins is a deal breaker. Second rate finishes are also a deal breaker,” he says.
   Stability and consistency are two additional qualities to look for in a supplier. “You don’t want a supplier that changes its business focus every few years,” explains Charlie Drago. “This is where your peers can help. If they have been working with a supplier for years, chances are the company is stable.”
   Peter Clarke says that a solid, well-made product line, overall quality and consistent product lines are important traits to look for. “When a corporate client spends a month selecting an item for an annual event, that item needs to be available for a reasonable period of time afterward,” he says.
   Product Selection—Award dealers look for suppliers with a good selection of products and those that are also able to introduce new products on a consistent basis.
   “We cannot sell the same things to the same customers year after year,” Lisa Tanner points out. “We are always looking for new products for our customers. Since some of them buy from us regularly, we want to offer the latest merchandise.”
   Jeff Karnuth elaborates, “We bring in new products at least twice a year. We are always rotating our showroom displays so the showroom does not get stale or old looking. The supplier must have a large selection of products to choose from so we can offer the same to our customers. Customers want choices these days. If you do not offer it, they will find it on the Internet.”, Laconia, NH, is a specialty supplier of ceremonial products, including groundbreaking shovels and ceremonial scissors. Big Sky Woodcrafters, Inc., Laurel, MT, specializes in hardwood components.

   Product & Technical Support—A supplier that backs up its products and services with reliable and knowledgeable technical and product support can be invaluable. Perhaps you have questions about how much or what type of material you need for a particular job. Or maybe you are sublimating a product that you’ve never worked with before and you need some technical tips. Will the supplier be able to help you out?
   “Some suppliers really know their products well and can provide us with great customer service on the products we buy from them, which counts for a lot,” says Lisa Tanner.
   Johnson Plastics, for example, prides itself on offering comprehensive customer support to all of its customers and it’s a major part of the business. Johnson’s technical services and support includes resources such as training events, online forums, webinars, technical tips on its website and a full staff of specialists in the areas of engraving and sublimation.
   “Our customer service staff is very knowledgeable about products for specific uses and applications,” says Margaret Johnson, director of marketing for Johnson Plastics. “We also work closely with our vendors and manufacturers to offer products that may not be a part of their normal line.”
   Value-Added Services/Customization—There will be occasions when an off-the-shelf product doesn’t fit your client’s needs, in which case you’ll need to work with a supplier that offers custom capabilities and/or “value-added services.” For example, maybe you need a special engraving cutter for a job that falls outside the realm of the standard engraving cutters that most warehouse suppliers offer. Or perhaps instead of an entire sheet of engraving stock, you need a quantity of 1" x 3" plates that are beveled and hole punched. Or maybe your client wants a custom award built entirely from scratch. Not all suppliers offer these types of services, so finding those that do can be extremely useful when the need arises.
   Johnson Plastics offers a variety of value-added services, including the ability to custom cut plastic, aluminum, brass and sublimation materials. The company also offers hot stamped or screen printed logos on badges and other blanks.
   “Award and engraving shops generally offer a variety of services and have the talent internally to produce quality results,” says Johnson. “But few shops can do everything all the time. It is important to work with a vendor who can assist you when you are behind in production or you need help producing something requiring equipment or technology you do not have available. That is the perfect time to outsource part or all of those jobs. A good vendor will offer those services or can assist you in finding someone who has the desired capabilities.”
   Dependability—Reliability and fast turnaround are also key factors to look for in a supplier. You want a supplier who will ship the correct number of items as promised and have them arrive in good shape.
   “A good supplier needs to keep promises. We do not miss due dates for our clients,” says Peter Clarke.
   “Fast is a must in today’s world,” adds Jeff Karnuth. “Our customers increasingly have a Wal-Mart mentality. They want it now so we have to be able to get it quickly.”
   In addition to helping you satisfy your customers’ needs, a supplier that is dependable and offers fast turnaround on orders can help your business run smoothly. “We have reduced our inventory specifically because most of our suppliers offer fast turnaround. If we have to wait forever to get something, we don’t use that supplier,” explains Lisa Tanner.
   Diana Shih from Topmost World also advises looking for a supplier with these qualities. She says, “Most awards presentations have a time critical due date. In order for retailers to provide rapid services and high quality awards to end users, it is critical to work with a supplier(s) that not only offers a wide selection of in-stock products for fast turnaround, but also guarantees quality satisfaction.”
The Bad Experience
   Occasional bad experiences with vendors are inevitable—everyone has them. More important, however, is how the situation is resolved.
   Lisa Tanner concedes that sometimes problems happen that are beyond the supplier’s control. “Most of the bad experiences we have experienced have to do with rush orders or something out of the ordinary. So we do acknowledge that we were pushing the envelope with that order or that we were asking for something that was not likely to happen,” she says.
   If problems occur repeatedly, however, that should send up a red flag about the vendor. Charlie Drago says, “We have had some suppliers actually lie to us. If they don’t have the product or can’t make a ship date, we want them to be honest with us. We try not to use companies that can’t make deadlines or are not truthful.”
   John Stangle says that he has experienced ongoing problems with one particular supplier. “Sometimes they don’t have the item in stock so it has to be shipped from four or five different locations which not only increases shipping costs but shipping time as well! Returning defective products is also a nightmare to go through with this supplier, sometimes involving months to get resolved. I hate to order from them and will only do it when absolutely necessary,” he says.
   If you do have a problem with a supplier, the best course of action is to bring it to their attention. Perhaps they are truly unaware of the problem. Or possibly, they are experiencing temporary difficulties as a result of a new product line or shipping procedure. Odds are, in most cases, the supplier will do what it takes to remedy the situation. But if you ask for better service and don’t get it, it’s probably time to find a new vendor.

You can find a very large selection of awards and components from large warehouse companies such as PDU, South El Monte, CA.

Building a Relationship
   Perhaps the biggest key to locating good suppliers is finding a few select vendors that you can build a mutually beneficial working relationship with. A supplier can do much more than supply you with the products and services you need to do business. An effective vendor can turn into a partner that can help you evaluate the potential of new products and even help you cut costs.
   Gillian Martin from Ansell’s Awards & Specialties, St. Thomas, ON, Canada, says, “I tend to buy the most from companies that I know on a more personal, long-term basis when I can. Someone else might be less expensive, but I know I can trust the supplier that I have the long-term relationship with and that is important.”
   As a customer, there are a few things that you can do to develop and maintain the best dealer/supplier relationship possible. First, decide on your key suppliers. You will likely have more than one, but it is important to deal with a manageable number of regular suppliers as opposed to buying from everyone or just going with the lowest price. When you develop good relationships, suppliers know who their good customers are and they’ll jump through hoops to service good and loyal customers. You are also most likely to receive the best pricing and customer service when you need it.
   Charlie Drago advocates developing a good relationship with your suppliers. “Meet their salespeople. Invite them to come and see your business. The better you know them, the more they will do for you. We are on a first-name basis with most vendors. We know that they will bend over backwards to help us out. And it is a two-way street. We want to see them sell a lot and do well with their business,” he says. “Also, pay your suppliers’ bills on time. That’s the most important thing I could recommend.”
   Peter Clarke says it’s important to be up front with your suppliers about your needs. “Treat them with the same respect that you treat your clients with, even when something goes wrong. I have been saved over and over by suppliers who go the extra mile,” he states.
   Jeff Karnuth agrees with this sentiment. “Be loyal and honest to your suppliers. This is a partnership between the two of you. You need each other for both to succeed. Figure out who is going to be your main supplier. Meet with that rep to work out pricing, delivery, payment terms and other issues. Just like any relationship, it takes time and there will be ups and downs but it can be very beneficial to stick with them for the long term.”
   Diana Shih adds, “Because retailers and suppliers rely on each other for their mutual business growth, retailers should learn about their suppliers’ services and products to make the most of each supplier’s strengths and capabilities. Keeping up a good credit history with suppliers is also a key to make sure your orders are fulfilled promptly and that you are able to take advantage of all the available incentives.”
Smart Shopping is in the Bag
   There are good suppliers out there and award dealers all agree that they have vendors that they can count on to have the product in stock and get it shipped out quickly while standing behind their products and services with stellar customer service. But finding a good supplier for your business will take some work on your part.
   Lisa Tanner advises, “Finding a good supplier is mostly trial and error. You just have to try them out and see what happens. Any time you buy from a company, you are taking a chance on their products getting to you on time and in good condition. Keep a list and keep your catalogs handy. Use your inventory sheets as check lists for good versus not-so-good suppliers. And if you do have a problem, be professional about it. Resolve it in a calm, conversational way so that if you ever have to buy from them again, you won’t be on THEIR bad list! Hey, it happens.”
   With a little legwork, you can develop a preferred supplier list that includes vendors with proven customer service, fair pricing and reasonable turnaround times that also offer business incentives such as volume pricing and frequent buying discounts.
   “Our preferred suppliers make us feel like we are important to them—and they are important to us,” says Tanner. And those are the major keys to shopping smart for your business.




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