Should I Install Cabinets for a Big Box Store?

Advice from all sides, including those who tried it and liked it, and those who tried it and didn't. December 26, 2006

I am considering working as an installer for a national big box lumber yard, but I will be also do some work for a local casework company. I doubt that the case work company will keep me very busy so I need other work. What are some of some your experiences in signing a contract and installing for these large companies? How busy do they keep you? I do not want to do something that will be a mistake later

Forum Responses
(Cabinet and Millwork Installation Forum)
From contributor A:
I do kitchen installations for the big box stores in the Los Angeles area. I also install for a big some very big custom kitchen companies as well. Are you thinking of kitchen, millwork or trim installs? The pay schedule is different for these particular areas.

First, you need to have your license, obviously, workers comp. whether you have employees or not and commercial insurance - both general and vehicular. All insurance will have the big box company as an additional insured. Expect background checks and a huge application to fill out. Also, expect a 3 month process before you even get the first measure.

I do very well and like the companies I work with but you have to have a different mind set to work with a big box company. You'll need, among other things, patience, fax machines, computers, dedicated time for administration work and did I mention patience?

It takes a long time to get set up and have the work roll in and then be profitable. You make less money per quote but it evens out as you don't have marketing and sales. Now I don't think the money is nearly as good for anything other than kitchens but that's what I've read. I don't know this first hand.

Our stores can book us out 3 months with kitchens. You'll lose sales with the designers if you don't do all the remodeling that goes with a kitchen but just stick to your business plan. If you want to install, then just install. Expect to deal with new designers, new managers, wrong measurements, site problems and payment if the customer is not happy. If you get a good rep, you'll work.

In conclusion, working for these companies is not for everyone. I would say most installers last a year and that's it. The turnover rate is due to frustration mostly. Yes, you can make a lot of money but you'll have to get the reputation first within that store. Also, you'll be on a rotation so you will have to wait your turn to get details then jobs. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

From contributor B:

If you are not accustomed to a chain of command and lots of paperwork you will find it hard to adjust. They will monopolize your time and yet you won't be on the payroll, so to speak. But someone has to do it, and many folks do. Itís just different -like having three bosses and none of them are in fact your boss. Only you can decide how much you can handle. There is a reason they are always looking for new installers. Itís not because their business is always doubling.

From contributor C:
I have no experience working for a big box store but I have witnessed the high turnover. I have always said that I'd shovel crap with a teaspoon if I had to, to feed my family. That said, I would explore all other options first, including the aforementioned. I often say that I'm unemployable, and so I am self employed. My biggest problem would be the lack of control. My biggest fear would be missing better opportunities for growth.

From contributor D:
I know from the other side, being a kitchen designer, the biggest problem we had was finding competent installers. We had one good installer and he was, and still is, booked 6 months out. After a couple of years designing, my job morphed into resolving kitchen problems post install and this is what I learned.
1. Many of the problems are actually caused by the designers making small mistakes that did not get caught. These are generally underpaid, overbooked designers with minimal experience, trying to design a kitchen in the middle of a warehouse while people are asking for directions to the nail aisle.
2. Installers who are not properly trained to install kitchens. Everyone with a tool belt thinks he can install a kitchen, but it is a specialty that requires some training and experience. Many problems I dealt with were because the installer just did not know the correct way to install the cabinets - did not know where to put skins on panels, or how to space out and use fillers, etc.
3. Inability to deal with customers. Customers buying from a box store are a little different than those who buy custom. As an installer it helps GREATLY if you know how to deal with people. If there is a small problem, often just explaining it to the customer and suggesting a solution will go a long way toward heading off a battle. People tend to know when they are being snowballed, and once they feel they are being mistreated or lied to, that's when things tend to get ugly.
4. Supplier error. As big and streamlined as some of these cabinet suppliers are, they do tend to make more than their fair share of mistakes. Always, always, always, check to make sure you have everything and that it's the correct finish before you start the job. This sounds simple, but you would be amazed at how many times someone gets their kitchen installed only to come home that evening and find it's the wrong color.

I'm sure people will react to this post, but understand this is firsthand experience, not how I think things should be, or how I've heard they are. As an installer for a big box you can make a lot of money, but it does not come easy. When I worked there, our key installer was consistently booked out for 6 months. He could knock out roughly two kitchens in a week, depending on size, and the average install for a kitchen was around 3k. You do the math! He was good because he knew his job well, he could communicate with the customers, he never - and this is important - never took other work from customers. Just installed the kitchen and moved on. He would always check the design and see the kitchen before filling out the install bid, and would catch most of the mistakes before they became problems.

As I said before, I'm sure others may disagree with some of this but I know these things from experience. It can be a very profitable way to go but you have to be prepared to work in a slightly different fashion.

From contributor E:
A good, quality installer will get more calls - despite rotation. It will take patience to receive your income the first 2-3 months, but once you've established yourself you'll have a good steady flow of good income. I highly recommend having a well trained crew of 3-5 people. Get in, get out. Get them level, make them right and do it quickly. Besides the big boys, getting your name out to other locally available manufacturers will help you get in with volume builders and multi-family dwelling builders. Keep meticulous records, be easy to reach, stay on top of every project, and make sure every job is done on time. Then be prepared - your biggest obstacle will be finding people who will work, regardless of compensation.

From contributor F:
We, at one time, had 5 'big stores' and dropped them all. Their cut (%) is way too high and we ended up competing with ourselves. The paper work is unreasonable and your own control is gone. We were supplying all labor and material and the 'kick-back' to them was out of control. Proceed with caution.

From contributor A:
Truer words could not be spoken. I'm copying your post for future reference. You just got first hand information on what to expect from a designer. Every single word was spot on. Anyone who thinks designing or installing kitchens is easy if full of it. I pour over drawings mostly late at night to make sure everything will line up, clearance for pulls and doors, crown returns fit, the list is endless. It's a lot of work for a single kitchen let alone the installation. At our box company it's policy to do our own measuring plus a return trip when the cabinets are drop shipped. We never install unless all the cabinets are there, undamaged and all materials present and accounted for. As mentioned, if you get in the groove and you're a pro, you will work and be busy. We can get booked out pretty far if you have a store that likes you and gets sales. Believe me, the designer wants an installer who will communicate and problem solve with the customer. I mentioned that in the other post. It's not for everyone but if you're a go-getter, problem solver and customer oriented, you'll do very well.

From contributor G:
Read their contract! A friend of mine wanted me to install for a local big box store when things were slow. He was doing some of their plumbing and he thought it would be a good chance for us to work on some jobs together. I went in to talk with them and didn't like their attitude right off the bat but I took one of the contracts I would have to sign and read it. After reading it completely, I immediately came to the conclusion that I was not going to subject my business to their kind of demands. The way I read it was they wanted all the profit and glory and none of the responsibility. Be careful and good luck.

From contributor H:
Beware the box! I'm an installer for the blue team presently. I'm transitioning back to more high-end custom work because they get way too much for the crappy support. I thought the money would be good, and it is if you want to just slap and go 2-3 kitchens a week. I can't do half-assed work, it would be a disservice to my mentors. Go ahead but pay attention to every other post here.

From contributor I:
Approximately ten years ago I looked at this possibility. They not only wanted me to provide them proof of business license, WCB, liability insurance etc. - all the things that you normally have and would have to produce to qualify on some projects - they also wanted lists of my previous clients, and copies of my tax returns for the last x years. If I may take a Texican perspective, this was just none of their business and I wrote them off real quick. Don't forget that many of the folks who work in these stores also work on the side, and if for example some "really rich person" wants a door installed, do you really think that job is going make it down to the guy who installs doors day after day on a flat rate for these stores? Dream on- it's going to get sucked up by the door salesperson who does "installs" on the side, or at worst, one of his buddies.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor R:

I agree with Contributor D. Almost all my install issues were because the factory could not produce a square cabinet. Always check every cabinet before you even attempt to install. This caused drawers to jam and not open or close fully. You would not fix the problem in the field, (and I would recommend you don't) because you risk liability for the structural integrity of a cabinet built in a factory across the country.

I would point out the problems that I could not fix and the customer would have the Box Store reorder, which adds time to the final install without you getting paid. Then you have trim matching issues, color matching issues, etc. Like has been said, you can make good money but be realistic about all the issues that you will not get paid for.