A little less than three years ago, I remember sitting down with an long-time fabricator friend of mine from Boston, and he was one of the first to tell me that his business was being seriously affected by the recession. As our discussion went on, we both agreed that one upside to the recession would be that it would also serve as a "cleansing" of the industry, where the "hacks" are put out of business. After all, if someone is going to spend several hard-earned dollars on granite countertops, they're going to want to make sure they're dealing with a professional, right?

Wrong! As it turned out, the hacks started to thrive in most markets. When homeowners would re-do their kitchen or bathroom, they did so with one eye on their dwindling bank account, and sensible people started buying solely based on price. As a result, some amazingly bad granite work was being done.

"Back in the day, not too long ago, you would find a licensed and insured fabricator and you were good to go," said Cameron DeMille of MilleStone Marble & Tile, Inc. of Palm Desert, CA. "Work was up to par, service was acceptable, etc. Then came the lowballers and hacks. People realized the potential of a successful fabrication shop and decided they could do it, too. For the last several years -- maybe even pushing a decade -- we have had to deal with inexperienced, unintelligent, sneaky people that go to work every day for the sole purpose of making a dollar. These people have flourished in the economic downturn -- with the combination of Chinese prefab granite and uninformed, uneducated consumers. People are coming out of the woodwork for deals, and they are getting them from the fly-by-nighters."

And even as the economy is picking up, some of the damage done by the hacks will require some undoing on the part of conscientious fabricators. It will not happen automatically. "The economy IS starting to advance a tiny bit, which is showing signs of life from the more persnickety crowd," DeMille explained. "Unfortunately, this crowd is also uneducated when it comes to stone, and they are being taken by the hacks. It is difficult to convince clients that we are the company they should be hiring because we care, we do good work and we will provide exceptional customer service. They just don't seem to know the difference between the cheap guy and the more expensive guy until they get burned -- and they do get burned."

Unfortunately, it falls upon the fabricators to educate consumers on the value of quality and craftsmanship more than ever before. Shops need to document their work -- the quality of their seams, their ability to do complex edges, etc. -- and they need to build (and update) a reference list of recent customers who can share their positive experiences. I know some of this sounds pretty basic, but a lot of short-handed shops simply find themselves consumed with the day-to-day task of fabricating and installing kitchens, and they don't have time to document work and build reference lists. Regrettably, fabricators are going to have to start finding time to educate their customers -- and more importantly, their potential customers. "The lowballers won't be able to hang around when the economy gets going again," DeMille said. "They just won't be able to keep up, and then we'll be fine. Right now is the issue. A mass education on a consumer level needs to be initiated so that people are armed with the knowledge and questions to ask so that they themselves can make an educated decision and choose the fabricator that is right for them based on facts, not whatever the salesman is flinging their way."

Perhaps just as powerful as positive education, fabricators may also benefit by showing consumers exactly what can go wrong when they go with a lowball price. There is a great "Hall of Shame" online at www.stoneadvice.com/gallery/Some-really-nasty-kitchens that shows some really poor work. When people say, "But how come you can't do it for $20/foot," it might not be a bad idea to send them that way.

The bottom line is that a fabricator who does things right will never be able to compete with the hacks out there, and they shouldn't even try. A number of fabricators have told me that cutting their price by a few dollars per foot doesn't help anyhow -- not when you're comparing yourself to a shop that's doing $1,000 kitchens. The theory was that by dropping their prices, all they were doing was reducing themselves to the level of the hacks -- and not getting the business anyhow. "In the long term, we don't want those customers anyway," was how one fabricator described the situation at a recent roundtable discussion.

Another option that may seem obvious, but can also be overlooked when a shop is short staffed, is to look inward at your shop efficiency. In this edition of the Stone World Fabricator E-News, we have a complete roundtable on increasing shop efficiency, and if even one of the tips there can help reduce costs, then it was worth the read.