Know when it's time to fix that old piece of equipment or replace it with a high-end system.

Threw my Timex watch in the trash the other day. Kept accurate time for as long as it worked, but failed to keep on ticking beyond the couple of years I owned it.

Maybe it wasn't even broken. Maybe it just needed a new battery. But I'd feel foolish taking a $35 watch into a jewelry store asking to change the battery. That probably would cost about as much as a new watch. Plus, I didn't feel like sitting through a jeweler's pitch for something more expensive.

Wristwatches to me are purely functional items, not status symbols, and they too easily get lost or stolen. That's why I buy mine at Walgreens rather than Tiffany's. Timex is the most expensive brand carried by the drugstore chain, with top models selling for $39.95. I was stunned to find some wristwatches retailing for $9.95 that actually looked quite snazzy. I was tempted to get one, but couldn't bring myself to believe anything that cheap would work very well. I could be wrong. Nowadays, thanks to microchips, a lot of merchandise that's cheap performs OK.

The stuff that's not worth fixing anymore is amazing. Wristwatches, alarm clocks, radios, even large items like microwave ovens, power tools, TV sets and VCRs, are among the household goods that once kept repair shops in business but have evolved into disposables.

What's it worth?

It reminds me of the phone call I received several years ago from a frustrated contractor asking for help locating some small, ancient part for a very old piece of equipment. He told me he had spent most of the morning seeking it with no luck. I didn't have a clue where to find one either, and asked him, "Why not just replace the whole unit?" His response was, "I guess it might come to that. I was just looking to save the customer some money."

Nice, thoughtful fellow, but that displays the backward thinking that permeates the HVAC industry. He had spent almost half a day of non-billable time chasing down a $10 repair part as a favor to a customer who probably would never know of his heroic effort or appreciate it.

That contractor represents both the best and worst of this industry. It's filled with hard-working souls just like him who try to do right by their customers to the point of needlessly complicating their own lives. And yet, many consumers view them and their services as commodities.

Apart from the pack

Contractors need to figure out ways to break from the pack with distinct value-added services that justify premium-priced labor. What exactly can you offer that most of your competitors can't or won't? Some suggestions:

  • Cater to the upscale market. But remember: Rich people didn't get that way squandering money. They haggle over the price of routine services. Charge them too much for a simple repair and they'll scream. But these folks don't blink at high prices, as long as they feel they're getting high-end merchandise and service. Contractors that cater to an upscale market need to conduct themselves in an upscale manner.

  • Specialize in a niche market. The best example I can think of is radiant heating. There's no way a well-designed radiant system can compete in price with a central HVAC system, or even hydronic heating. But a few heating contractors have found it to be lucrative, sold based on comfort and efficiency. It helps that most heating contractors will not attempt a radiant project, nor should they without adequate training. Some mechanical contractors come to specialize in certain types of work to the point where they often get called to perform such jobs without competitive bidding. That's a nice way to do business.

    (Jim Olsztynski - pronounced Ol-stin-skee - is editor of Supply House Times, a sister publication of Snips. He can be reached at (630) 694-4006, or e-mail wrdwzrd@aol.com.)