How did the downturn affect your suppliers?
When it really took hold, even some of our most trusted manufacturers resorted to selling direct, even to consumers, in order to survive. They cut off their limbs to try to save their torso. So now we are gone, but I assume they figure that new retailers will emerge when the market recovers, if they can only make it through until then.

What about your competition?

Greater Phoenix is the land of Home Depots. Lowe’s has come into the market significantly, but everything is measured against Home Depot pricing. That is the reality against which we always had to make our case. Throw in some discount “wholesalers” selling products like engineered bamboo that fails in a hot, dry climate and suddenly we have to defend products (such as solid bamboo) as well.

During the last year, we really started to see the impact of out-of-state Web retailers cutting into our sales. Surprisingly, some of their retail pricing was below our cost. With their additional advantage of not having to charge sales tax, we could never match their pricing. We were providing the necessary touch and feel experience on behalf of Web retailers for free.

How important is third-party certification for green products?
a.k.a. Green co-owner Jeff Frost and I have pushed this since Day 1. The issue is complex and expensive, but the fastest first step would be for the FTC to update its Green Guides as to allowable and disallowable advertising methods and then enforce them rigorously. The rest needs to be sorted out by a consensus body, but the independent retailers need to be at the table.

Without any comprehensive standards, in two years everyone will be carrying “green products.” In fact, our original goal of making green products available to the mainstream public will have been fulfilled … at least in the pronouncements of marketing departments. So, why live with no income and on the edge of significant debt for years only to have to split the potential rewards with every goliath chain retailer and others?

What is the future of green building in Phoenix?
We don’t expect the Phoenix building market to recover to reasonable levels for at least two years. It continues to be hard to predict. The national focus from the feds down is going to be energy efficiency and renewables for some time, but the challenge is how to leverage that without giving up our additional commitment to issues like indoor air quality, toxicity, and natural resource depletion.

We are now assessing lessons learned from a.k.a. Green as we contemplate our next long-term steps. And we look with admiration at those pure-play retailers such as Eco Home Improvement, LivinGreen, The Green Building Center, and Amicus Green Building Center, who, either by choosing better markets or by playing their cards smarter, continue to stick to their sustainability values in this difficult economic time. With the planet on a climate-change ticking clock, rest assured you won’t be seeing “Mick and Jeff’s Hopped Up Hummer Shop” anytime soon but, rather, something that continues to help further the mission of healthier people and a sustainable planet.

This article was adapted from Dalrymple’s blog posting “After a.k.a. Green: A Look Back and Forward at the Green Building Products Industry.”

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