A Seat at the Table

Sure price matters, but it’s not the most important factor when making furniture purchases. Purchasing managers keep a lot of different balls in the air when deciding what to get and from whom. If your school is buying in the future here are some factors to remember that will keep everyone happy.

When Things Go Wrong…
The vendor/purchaser relationship proves one of the strongest factors in making a purchase. “The person on the other end of the line is critical,” insists Rick Coulter, executive director for purchasing, Lewisville Independent School District in north Texas. “We need a furniture rep that we can trust. In the end they are only as good as their last sale.”

And yes, sometimes a furniture purchase will morph into a disaster that makes everyone look bad. “We had an issue a few years ago when delivery was a problem and there was a chance the school wouldn’t open on time,” continues Coulter. “That wasn’t an option. So in the end our staff had to scramble to get the pieces installed and the classrooms prepped and ready.”

Trudy Peepgrass, senior buyer, Denver School System recalls a similar story. “A vendor came in late once and we had to install temporary furniture in order to open the school on time,” she says. “Then when the furniture finally arrived about a quarter of the product started to delaminate. It took the vendor eight months to fix that problem.”

If you haven’t bought furniture in a while, or are now embarking on a large building project and don’t have a strong relationship with different vendors, then ask around. “Check with five or 10 different schools on the performance of a company,” suggests Coulter. “Ask if they delivered the correct product on time. Make sure they stand behind their installation and their warrantees.”

“When we put out a bid we want to make sure that the dealer can deliver so we put a number of requirements on them before hand,” explains Marc Monforte, interim director of materiel management and purchasing, LA Unified School District. “We want them to have a local warehouse and they must maintain a certain percentage of furniture on hand for us, for instance.”

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Even after performing the proper due diligence on a company, a school must understand that a successful relationship is a two way street. That means that the client bears much of the responsibility in keeping the lines of communication open. “If we can’t accept furniture on the date we initially agreed on we try to give as much notice as possible,” explains Coulter. “When we do accept the product we have layouts and spreadsheets to help guide what goes where. And we always pay promptly.”

The furniture companies appreciate the effort. “We understand about construction delays and working with change is what we do best,” says Brian True, director of sales for the national sales group, Virco. “Still it’s best to have as much lead time as possible and keeping us informed along the way helps us be more flexible.”

Warrantees are another area where furniture manufacturers and dealers can prove how brightly they shine. Most purchasing professionals demand a minimum five-year warrantee. Plenty of products go beyond with a ten-year or even lifetime warrantee.

Yet, schools continue to push it, often to the purchasing manager’s chagrin. “I’ve had some of my schools call the vendor because they’ve left chairs out in the rain or wanted tables that were at least 25 years old replaced,” recalls Quinton Dean, purchasing services manager, LA Unified School District. “That’s not fair to the vendor but they honored it anyway.”

Some companies go even farther. VS America, an offshoot of VS, a German company that has done business in Europe for over 100 years, once “found a purchase order that was 40 years old,” according to Carmen Braun, marketing manager. “But in Germany schools only buy furniture every 20 to 30 years so it’s not unheard of.”

Also understand that sometimes your people can do things quicker or cheaper. “We’ve done our own installation and clean up or have even hired a third party to do those chores,” says Peepgrass. “Sometimes it costs less sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a good option to have in your toolbox.”

Know Your End User
Keeping your client happy can also prove challenging. “Our district customers are hard on the furnishings,” reports Julie Hendrick, director of design and construction, Wichita Public Schools. “So durability is an important factor in choosing product.” Aesthetics comes into play as well. LA Unified is right in the middle of building 160 new schools and there is a pledge to make each a unique structure both inside and out. How can they keep to the budget without using a cookie cutter approach?

“We allow choice but it is limited,” answers Monforte. Hedrick agrees. “After a building bond passed in 2000 we created a notebook of furnishings that listed the different types of items available from desks and chairs to specialty items like library and music room furniture,” she recalls. “The book set the standards and listed the different options available like color or finish.”

It takes a village to make it into that book. Before Hendrick and her colleagues allow a product to be specified a committee reviews and rates the item to make sure the end user will be happy. Shari Miller, procurement coordinator, Lewisville Independent School District agrees. “We have to ensure a product is safe and reliable and easy to use,” she says. “So if we need folding cafeteria tables we want the custodial staff to try them out and be happy with them. They are going to fold and move those tables several times a day. They try them out along with safety specialists.”

Providing this limited palette helps keep the final selections flexible. “Virco may offer 50 different colors of a product but we will limit our schools’ choices to 10,” says Peepgrass. “Everyone wants their school colors but it makes more sense to have a neutral furniture color choice.”
Riding Piggyback
If your school doesn’t have the buying clout of the large school districts mentioned here there is still a way to gain some buying clout. From national offerings like the US Communities Contract to local entities like Education Purchasing Cooperative of North Texas or the Colorado Cooperative for School Districts there are ways to piggyback a smaller order onto a larger contract. Not only is that good business for your school it’s good for the furniture companies as well.

“The bid process is arduous and costly for us,” says Randal Smith, vice president, marketing, Virco Mfg. Corporation. “This new paradigm takes down the barrier of price for smaller schools and lets us get right to needs assessment.”
And then furnish them.