Ever wonder why fasteners like nuts and bolts are so expensive? You would think something so standard and manufactured in such high volumes would be cheap, but in most places, they’re actually pretty expensive. Why?
It’s a complex equation with a lot of factors — including you.
The truth is, fasteners are very cheap to make. They are manufactured in automated factories where they are pumped out by the ton. But, it’s a complex business — which we’ll cover some below. However, it’s not the manufacturing or the complexity of the business that makes your price high.
The Nuts and Bolts of Retail
In most business there are price leaders (low profit, high value) items that retail stores use to bring you in. There are also profit leaders (high profit margin) items that the retailer marks up considerably. In retail stores, bolts tend to be in the high profit margin category.
There are lots of reasons to justify the high profit margin placement. Retailers have to justify the space and cost of handling the products they carry — like the fact that a good nuts and bolts selection takes a lot of store space, a significant investment in time and energy to keep it stocked, and most people shopping for nuts and bolts buy only a small number of them. Additionally, the typical sale is a small total ticket. All of this adds up to a fairly high cost for retailers to even have them there for us DIY’ers.
But then, there’s the fact that we, as do-it-yourself builders, NEED them. And we will buy them. Retailers know that, and big retailers leverage that to their advantage.
These business factors explain why the bolt section is usually at the back of the store, or why smaller nuts and bolts are often sold in packages of many — even if you only need one. These are just factors in doing business.
The Better Way to Save
It’s not a bad thing for stores to make money, and actually, they have to in order to stay in business. I am personally very happy that there is an Ace Hardware store near so that when I need that one particular bolt, or pin, or clip, I can just drop in and get it.
That being said, when I’m doing a bigger project, like this trailer or gantry crane, I don’t pay the jacked up prices for nuts and bolts. Knowing where and how to get the fasteners you need is key to saving big on the small stuff.
Nuts and Bolts Purchase Example
Let’s look at a specific example from this week’s experience buying some nuts and bolts. I only need a few, so I pop into Ace Hardware to grab them. Only, there’s a little sticker shock. That prompted a deeper look, then of course, to share my findings. Here’s the shopping list:
- Qty. 15, 1/2″-13 x 3″ Hex Head, standard steel, zinc plated bolts. — Super standard stuff.
- Qty. 15, 1/2″-13 Hex nuts, standard steel, zinc plated. — Super common, generic nuts.
- Qty. 30, 5/16″-24 x 1.25″ Button Head, (usually in grade 8) bolts. — Fine thread is not so standard, and button head is a little less common, but still pretty general.
Read more about choosing the right bolts for the job in this article about Bolt Choices.
At Ace they didn’t have grade 2, 1/2″ bolts, so Grade 5 was the choice at $1.59 each.
Ace also did not have button heads in 5/16″-24, or any fine thread in Grade 5, so the choice was hex heads in grade 8 at $0.95 each.
Ace Hardware Total: $41.31 — but could not get what I actually wanted.
Side Note About ACE: I really appreciate our local Ace and their racks of fasteners and other specialty items. Yes, they have higher prices, but I understand, and I gladly pay those prices because that’s where I can find the one or two items I need. I like Ace, and I go there a lot, but not for quantities. They also have a bunch of little extra parts, like bumpers and odd pins. Their stores are great, but their website is sorely lacking in the fasteners department.
OK, the next most common place for do-it-yourself guys to get stuff is from the internet — and McMaster-Carr at McMaster.com is pretty cool. I was able to easily identify and select exactly the items on the list.
McMaster Total: $34.96 — had to order extra because of package sizes.
Side Note About McMaster: This is one of my favorite sites on the web. I love their website and for most things they are reasonable on price. The exception is raw materials and bolts. That being said, they carry a ton of materials, and you can buy small pieces, so the high price makes it worth it to get just what I want. Same for nuts and bolts. The prices are high, but the selection is incredible and it’s super easy to drill in to find just the right ones. Thank you McMaster.
Fastenal is an interesting chain of stores. I have purchased a lot from them over the years, but I generally quit going there because of frustration. They have great quality stuff, and the staff is always friendly and easy to work with, but it seems like there is always something on my list they don’t have in stock. That means coming back a second time. Yeah, they have a ton of fasteners on the shelves — all the common stuff — but inevitably there was some head type or length they need to order for me.
Fastenal Total: $33.12
Side Note About Fastenal: Many cities have Fastenal stores, it’s a big national chain. Stores are usually pretty well stocked, or you can get the nuts and bolts online at fastenal.com. They also carry a bunch of other things like tools and chemicals if you need them.
This is my fastener store of choice — local in Colorado Springs. Bar none, these guys are the best. Best customer service, best selection, most likely to have everything I need in stock, etc. Yes, sometimes they have to order things for me, but it’s the really weird stuff like M3.5 screws — and they’re in the next day or so.
In this case, Lightning Bolt did not have the 5/16″-24 x 1.25″ Button Head or round head, Grade 5 or 8 in stock. However, they did have the Stainless Steel version, so they sold me that at a discount to compensate. Now that’s great customer service!!
Lightning Bolt Total: $20.40
Side Note About Lightning Bolt: This is a local business. Visiting in person is best, but you can also get nuts and bolts by calling or emailing. This particular business is in Colorado Springs, but there are others like them in many cities. They are harder to find because they lack the online presence of the big boys, but as you can see from the price and service, stores like these are a gem worth finding.
Putting the Nuts and Bolts Together
So what does this all mean? As you can see in the examples above, the price varies a lot — More than double. Unfortunately, this is typical. The real cost of a bolt may be $0.09, but after the distribution channels and retail markup, the customer price might be $1.22. If that seems outrageous, look at the reasons listed above. These stores have to carry a ton of very similar low priced products, and that’s expensive. Yet, that’s the business model that allows them to provide them for the DIY crowd in small quantities.
Think about it for a minute. Take just one size bolt like 1/2 inch. They come in 20 different lengths, in 4 different grades, in 2 different thread pitches (13 & 20), in at least 4 different finishes, and 8 different head styles. That doesn’t include special materials like Stainless or Titanium. That means more than 5000 different 1/2″ bolts. And, that doesn’t include the nuts, washers or special ones like eye-bolts and threaded rod. Now figure 500 pieces of each to handle the orders that come in, and it’s 2.5 MILLION pieces just for 1/2″ bolts. Now multiply that by all the different bolt sizes in both English and Metric, and you have literally billions of possibilities. (I would love to see the nuts and bolts warehouse of McMaster-Carr! They carry all the odd-ball sizes too.) All that, because a do-it-yourself maker like you may walk through the door needing a particular fastener.
I personally think they are justified in the high margins, and I’m OK paying them (for small quantities).
When You Need More
When you want quantity, find a good source for assistance. Unfortunately for most of you, Lightning Bolt is a local Colorado Springs business. They serve primarily Colorado Springs, Pueblo and the surrounding areas in Colorado. With a larger order, it might be worth having them ship to you, but that’s not as convenient.
Lightning Bolt may be a local Colorado Spring business, but they are not the only independent fasteners distributor. Their primary business model is wholesale to bigger customers — the guys that go through tons of nuts and bolts in construction or manufacturing. However, they completely understand that smaller businesses like Synthesis also have needs for bolts in our machine builds and construction of prototypes. Furthermore, the owner at Lightning bolt gets it with individuals too. He understands that individuals that come in looking for 10 of this and 20 of that may well be the connection to someone else that can lead to a bigger account. I truly respect him as a savvy entrepreneur.
So wherever you are, look for a good local fasteners wholesale distributor. I’m not talking Fastenal, they are really a retailer. I’m talking wholesale distributor. These folks usually won’t have an impressive store front, and they likely won’t let you browse the shelves for what you want. However, they’ll have the best prices.
Do Them A Favor
When you find the perfect fasteners wholesale distributor, do them a favor and don’t pester them with one or two small bolts. Yes, if they’re like Lightning Bolt, they’ll probably get it for you with a big smile, but the cost of serving you is more than the bolts you just bought. Be kind and go to Ace or another retailer that’s set up for it.
Oh, and go to McMaster when you need some weird or special nuts and bolts. McMaster is my favorite place for the odd stuff, and I buy from them a lot.
Go to the wholesale distributor when you need a bunch, then do them a favor by letting others know about your good experiences with them. That’s the way we scratch each others’ backs in business and it’s true in the do-it-yourself projects world too.
Let us know in the comments below if any of this information is valuable to you. Also, let us know what other information you’d like to see in these blog posts. Nuts and bolts are just the beginning — and there’s addition information in our Bolts 101 Post.
For more good information about saving money with DIY projects, check out What Does It Cost To Build. Finally, if you like the information we provide, please share it. We’ll keep it coming.