- By Thomas G. Dolan
- March 1st, 2005
When purchasing school furniture and furnishings, price is certainly an important consideration, but it is far from being the only one. Other factors that have to be taken into consideration are quality, comparison shopping, user preference, vendor reliability, delivery, setup and installation, removal of packing materials and cleanup, maintenance and repair, the bid, the warranty and what to do if the promise you’ve been given is broken. Let’s take a brief look at each of these factors:
You want to avoid the lowest price, for nine times out of 10, the vendor is low balling it, says Rick Coulter, executive director of Purchasing, Lewisville Independent School District, Lewisville, Texas.The result can be the neglect of so many other factors, which can have you paying much more through the long run. But isn’t everything in school purchasing generally determined by the lowest bid? Here Coulter agrees with Ken Clark, director of Supply Services, Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, who says,We do everything on the basis of bid, not a negotiated deal, for we feel we get the best pricing. But we build into the bid the other expectations we have. We have a level playing field, then let the bidders go at it. When you put in your specific expectations, they become as much of the deal as the number of chairs and their price, adds Coulter.
We examine the entire unit for quality of construction, says Clark. For instance, we look at the welds of the metal and the way the tubing is set. If the tubing is crushed on one side, the unit will be weaker. But if the tubing fits in a rounded state as it bends, it is a much better piece of furniture. Metal glides will mark a tile floor, so you want nylon glides in that situation. On a carpeted floor, you want a sled-based rather than a leg chair to protect the carpet.
Quality is directly related to the estimated life of the unit, says Deborah R. Grant, RSBO, director of Purchasing, St. Cloud Area School District #742, St. Cloud, Minn. You have to determine if the welds are going to break and surfaces crack, if you are going to have a unit that will last 10 years or you have to replace it every year. Different school districts have different preferences. We feel it’s better to go for a quality unit that will last.
We start off with a standard, and then evaluate the furniture in relation to that standard, says Coulter. Our standard is not that of a new Cadillac or an old Volkswagen, but midrange. We then see who can provide the best price for our standard.
Our purchasing people will go to product shows and ask competing vendors that have products we are interested in to bring them on site, says Grant. We will place them side by side and see what best meets our needs. Normally, if there are two similar products, we might be interested in one versus the other because of how the welds are made, or perhaps the style or ergonomics. Then we’ll write into the specs the features we want.
We communicate with the end users in terms of what they want in functionality, Coulter says. What works for the teaching and maintenance staff is vital. We can sit around in the office and think we know what’s going to work. But if the users don’t think it works, it won’t. As an example, Coulter cites an elementary front desk that opens over a plastic bubble. Should the desktop or bubble be larger or smaller? What about style and colors? We’ll ask the teachers about those kinds of things.
Instead of just specing a cafeteria table, Coulter will check with the maintenance staff to see whether they should fold up. Take the chairs we use in the board room, which has a capacity of 400, Coulter says. We divide that room into 40 sections for training. So we ask, are the chairs we are ordering comfortable? Do the cushions have a high-density fabric that can stand repeated use? Can the chairs be moved around easily? (We have to figure that ladies are moving them around for the training sessions.) Are they split-based chairs, and are they on casters? What about storage ability — are they stackable or do they need a closet? We need to take all these factors into account and ask the users what works best for them.
If you’ve worked with a vendor in the past, check your records to see how reliable he was, suggests Coulter, and, if the vendor is new, check references. And here he says you should check on more than the obvious factors, such as delivery and durability, but also things like the processing of invoices.
Nothing is worse than back orders, Coulter says. Invoices can come to accounts payable, but not match the purchase — the price is wrong, or the quantity is wrong. You can spend months correcting errors like these. If the vendor offers good products and delivers on a timely fashion, but can’t handle its paperwork efficiently, you’re still going to have problems. In researching vendors, one consideration is whether you purchase direct from a manufacturer or through a distributor. In some cases, you can deal direct with the manufacturer, and in others, you can’t, says Clark. The benefit of dealing direct and cutting out the distributor is you can save 12 percent. Our district has done that with our food service and it works really well. For the food is shipped in bulk. We don’t really do it with furniture because sometimes we might need just 10 desks or chairs, not enough for a direct manufacturer order.
Adds Grant, Some manufacturers sell direct and others don’t. As long as the quality is there, it doesn’t matter. But sometimes, distributors offer more service. For instance, one of the distributors we work with provides us with extra gliders on the bottom of the furniture, in case ours break during the year.
On-time delivery is very important, especially with new construction, says Grant. If school is opening on Sept. 1, you don’t want the desks to arrive in October. My suggestion is to order as early as possible, so you’re not fighting a deadline with everybody else. If you can order early for next year, and have a place to store the goods, you will ensure you have the products on time, plus get aprice break.
Set Up and Installation
We require that any furniture we purchase be installed, says Clark. Most furniture companies don’t want to do this. The reason we have this requirement is that we are responsible for outfitting new schools. We don’t have the manpower to take it out of boxes and assemble it. We make that the vendor’s job. Grant, on the other hand, says, In our district, we buy furniture for existing schools. We do have the staff for setup and assembly, so we can save money on that.
Removal of Packing Materials and Cleanup
This is directly related to setup and installation, which, if you do it yourself, will leave a mess that your staff has to remove. Coulter, whose district grows by 1,000 to 1,500 students a year, also doesn’t have the staff for installation, so he requires that from the vendor. By the same token, he says, You can be left with a lot of corrugated boxes and packing material, so part of our requirements is that the vendor hauls all of that to the trash.
Maintenance and Repair
We track the past history of a vendor to see how responsive he has been in terms of repairs, Clark says. But this is furniture that is supposed to be able to withstand the above from a 14-year old, so if it does break, usually what results is a replacement.
Bid and Warranty
The bid and the warranty are virtually the same for Coulter, Clark and Grant. All of the conditions required are in the bid and warranty, whether or not the agreement is on one or two documents. The expectations of all aspects of the purchase are put in writing.
What to Do If the Promise Is Broken
We withhold payment until the situation is corrected, says Coulter. We don’t do this arbitrarily. But we get what we were promised before we pay for it. When timeliness is of the essence, such as the delivery of furniture for the opening of school. Grant says, We get a performance bond, and this is written into the specs. There is a cost for these bonds, but what they mean is that if the manufacturer does not deliver on time, he can forfeit a large percentage of the contract price. From the conversations I’ve had with manufacturers, what
I’ve heard is that orders they have with performance bonds are the ones they always deliver first.