Hustler dealers are now facing the big box threat. Excel Industries, the manufacturer of Hustler mowers, recently told dealers they will now offer the Raptor and Raptor SD for online sales at participating Home Depot and Lowes stores, with the Raptor SD 60 in a small number of test stores.

The Raptor was first introduced to dealers at its September 2012 dealer meeting. Since then, dealers have told Rural Lifestyle Dealer  about the popularity of the line, which starts at under $3,000 — with some saying they sold out last summer.

Rural Lifestyle Dealer met Hustler dealer Patti McDaniel-Saia at the dealer meeting and followed up to get her feedback on the news. Saia is the third-generation owner of McDaniel’s General Merchandise in McHenry, Miss.  Her son, Jimmie, is co-owner.

“Times change. We as small business owners have to be able to adapt and look at the market as a whole,” she says. She says the online industry is at least 15 years old, so it’s not a new threat to small businesses. She says she doesn’t typically take on a new vendor if they’re selling or planning to sell online. However, she does think there could be opportunities for service revenues with Hustler mowers being sold through big box retailers.

“I make more money out of my mechanics than I do by making a one-time sale,” McDaniel-Saia says.

Kevin Carson, owner of Charlottesville Power Equipment, Charlottesville, Va., says he dropped the Hustler line after the announcement. He says he had been unhappy with the support of his distributor and the manufacturer. He had been carrying Hustler’s other models and had placed his first order for the Raptor and Raptor SD in December.

“This was a blow to us. We had some pricing disagreements with the distributor and we finally decided it was time to sever ties,” he says. “This is my 16th year owning this business and every time a manufacturer does this, they say it’s a ‘win-win’ because of brand awareness and market share — that we as dealers will have more brand awareness and will sell more parts. They are absolutely wrong.”

Carson says dealers, but not box stores, have to comply with requirements for signage, training schools, parts inventory as well as being willing to perform warranty repairs on all units, all of which add costs. He’s also concerned about the dealer having the costs for a showroom and experienced salespeople, only to have an in-store visitor buy the mower online.

“Manufacturers have to step up to the plate on e-commerce sales and have to do a better job protecting the profits of dealers,” Carson says.

Geoff Blanco, co-owner of Rigg’s Outdoor Power Equipment, Valparaiso, Ind., ranks as the #2 dealer in the country. “Hustler’s rationale to dealer for doing this is brand awareness, but I don’t think they really understand what a box store does to a brand,” Blanco says. “Nobody shops at a box store because they think they’re buying quality. The buyer’s intent is to buy cheap.

 “Hustler has built an incredible brand that stands for quality and performance which is the exact opposite of what people get at box stores and their brand is well ahead of the perception of mowers currently available in the box stores,” Blanco says. “Now, they are associating their brand with those lower on the spectrum and risk that brand erosion affecting the entire line.”

 He says there’s a downside to the promises that box stores won’t have a price advantage and that dealers can get more service work. For instance, he says large retailers have the option to offer discounts if the products are bought through the store’s credit card or they can add incentives that dealers can’t afford to, like gift cards or yard carts.

And, dealers have to choose to serve their own customers ahead of box store customers. “The servicing dealer takes the brunt of that dissatisfaction but it’s really on the manufacturer.”

Blanco says they’re watching to see the effect. “It won’t change anything for us right now. It appears we won’t see the impact for at least a year.”

Rick Bailes, owner of Bill’s Tractor, Adkins, Texas, says he doesn’t think the announcement will have much effect on his sales because of his location. (Bailes serves on Rural Lifestyle Dealer’s editorial advisory board.) He’s nearly 100 miles from a participating Lowe’s.  He says they were #1 in Texas last year in Hustler orders and ranked near the top in the state for Hustler sales. “I’m not going to know right away, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.”

He thinks it may be difficult for stores to sell the larger, more expensive Raptor Super Duty because of its price and doesn’t think he’ll see much carryover for parts and service. He is concerned about his TV advertising, which reaches customers for whom Lowe’s is nearer than his dealership.

The bottom line for Bailes: “I love the product, but I’m not thrilled with their decision.”