When it comes to hardware products, the handiest tool for cabinet shops just might be the Internet. Thanks to the ingenuity and efforts of distributors, it's never been easier to buy hardware, find useful information and stay current on new products and trends.

Three such companies,  Cabinetparts.comCustom Service Hardware and  Rockler Woodworking and Hardware, employ the Internet in different ways while delivering products and services that meet customer requirements.

Tapping the Internet's potential

Cabinetparts.com,  www.cabinetparts.com, Pompano Beach, Fla., has been selling hardware exclusively online for 10 years. The company offers more than 14,000 products, with no quantity restrictions.

Cabinetmaker Pat Abbe, founder and president of the company, recognized the fledgling Internet as "the biggest thing since the Industrial Revolution." His initial vision was to sell hard-to-find hinges in small quantities to homeowners.

In time the vision shifted to small cabinet shops. "We absolutely changed the vision of the target to the five-man shop," Abbe says.

Despite the growth, the company welcomes what it calls "the $15 order," says Abbe. "We still service that customer and always will, as long as I'm running the company. We'll never forget what got us here."

Selecting products

Choosing the products for Cabinetparts.com is an ongoing process based on information from major hardware manufacturers and requests from customers. The company also relies on employee expertise. "Most of us have 12 to 14 years experience in the industry," says Polly O'Hara, product manager. "We know what customers are looking for, so we bring in products based on that."

Cabinetparts.com warehouses some products and has agreements with distributors across the country who do the shipping. Most orders ship in 24 to 48 hours.

A small overhead enables Cabinetparts.com to offer competitive pricing, and there's also a sales tax advantage for out of state customers. "We might not be the least expensive (hardware company) on the Internet, but we sell the most value for your money because we're selling service also," O'Hara says.

Technical information

"We try our very hardest to provide all of the technical information and the photographic information that (customers) need to make an intelligent purchase," O'Hara says. One example is a product matching service for European hinges. A customer sends a hinge to Cabinetparts.com, which is able to match it and sell the exact replacement.

Rockler Woodworking and Hardware,  www.rockler.com, Medina, Minn., was founded as a catalog company in 1954 and started selling hardware online in 1996.

"We saw Amazon and companies like that make it easy to purchase something and to compare pricing and we thought we'd jump into the fray," says Jason Bernloehr, e-commerce manager.

He says 20 to 30 percent of Rockler's hardware sales occur on the Internet.

Product selection

Rockler selects products based on what customers request and what vendors say is a good product with good sales. "We will create a new type of product based on the customer's input or maybe our thoughts on a certain product," Bernloehr says.

One advantage of the Internet is that Rockler can carry more products online than in the catalog or stores it has. "We can also provide a lot of great information about that particular product," Bernloehr says.

Rockler warehouses products and works with vendors who ship the products. "It enables us to carry more products that we normally wouldn't be able to carry." The company welcomes all size orders.

Bernloehr says Rockler's Internet hardware sales have been increasing exponentially. "I think more people are savvy with the Internet," he says. "It's easier to shop than it ever has been."

Customer advantages

The advantages for customers, says Bernloehr, are that the Internet provides many options. It's easy to search for products; find information; look at videos, customer reviews, and vendor and retail Web sites. Nominal shipping fees are offset by the cost of gasoline.

The company offers Rockler Pro on its Web site, where businesses can purchase products at reduced prices, hosts a blog and posts articles and other information on its site. "As far as assistance, if you're thinking about purchasing a product and you want to learn more about it, we have a team that does help you with that," Bernloehr says.

Custom Service Hardware ( www.cshardware.com ), Cedarburg, Wis., has been selling hardware over the Internet for about six years, although catalog sales is its biggest venue, says Tom Krawiec, sales manager.

Internet sales account for 3 to 5 percent of total hardware sales, he says, but they're on the increase. The company initiated Internet sales because it realized the change in the way customers, engineers and specifiers gather information and order products. "We wanted to be proactive in staying with the technology these days," Krawiec says.

Catalog, Internet in tandem

The Web site showcases catalog products. "We try to get as many of our products we currently stock here on the Internet," he says. "We put our most popular items on the Internet so they can be accessed."

The selection changes as new products are added and old products withdrawn. Customer requests account for some additions. "Sometimes before we get a new product in our catalog ... we'll put it on the Internet to see what type of interest there is," Krawiec says. "If it takes off, we get a lot of hits on that, a lot of times we'll put that into our catalog. We also use the Internet for closeout specials."

Krawiec says the increasing traffic is due in part to the economy. Customers are ordering after hours from their homes. They also use the Internet to comparison shop on product type and price.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.