There are all sorts of ways to buy paving, and all sorts of characters eager to help lighten your wallet, but as with any other commodity, there are good suppliers and there are bad. More than that: there are great suppliers and there are thieving, good-for-nothing, lowlife, scumbag rogues. Thankfully, there are more of the former and the number of the latter is being constantly reduced by the efforts of good contractors "spreading the word" and Trading Standards offices closing down the worst offenders.
One of the most frequent questions submitted to the website is to ask for a recommendation of a good supplier. However, unless I was able to constantly travel the length and breadth of these islands, I wouldn't have any chance of keeping up-to-date with who has what, who is providing a better range of products and materials, who can offer a better standard of service, and who the contractors themselves are using.
For those areas beyond my immediate reach, I rely to a great extent on feedback from the legions of contractors using this website ; they always know the best place in town, and they usually know who to avoid. It's not uncommon to find that many paving and hard landscaping specialists in a particular area all seem to use the same supplier, or, in larger towns, cities and conurbations, there is a select band of suppliers for the various materials and tools required in our trade.
Many of these contractors learn who's who and what's what in two ways: personal experience and word-of-mouth. If a particular supplier offers a good standard of service, or goes the extra kilometre to get a particular product that's been requested, the contractor is likely to go back, time and time again, but if they find a supplier is churlish, is repeatedly out of stock, is always half-a-day behind with deliveries, is not interested in getting hold of a few metres of summat different, then they will soon transfer their custom elsewhere. And despite the inevitable rivalry between local contractors, they do talk, and news of a slack supplier, of sub-standard or "knock-off" goods, of "cash deals" and the like, spreads like wildfire.
What makes a good supplier?
- Breadth of stock
- Depth of knowledge
- Display area
- Competitive pricing
- After-sales care
Breadth of stock:
The good supplier will have a wide range of stock rather than be tied to a single manufacturer. If it's known in advance that a specific paving is to be used on a particular project, then it may be that a tied-distributor (which usually means one of the large national Builders' Merchant/Provider or DIY Shed) can offer the keenest price, due to economies of scale, but when a wider overview of products is required, it is usually one of the smaller local or regional distributors that will offer the best all-round value.
Many smaller, independent Merchants/Providers have started to specialise in hard-landscaping to resist the domination of the market by the handful of powerful nationals, and they manage to stay in business by offering a better level of service and a wider range of products. Instead of offering the one tumbled block from such-and-such a manufacturer, as is often the case with the "Nationals", small independents are more likely to offer tumbled blocks from two, three or more manufacturers.
This provides a much wider choice of sizes and colours, but it also offers a range of prices and qualities, from the cheaper budget products to the top-of-the-range prestige items. Such a wealth of product makes it easier to buy, say, a Bradstone kerb unit, with a Marshalls' Tumbled block edge course and Brett textured paving for the body of the pavement. Such a mix is unlikely to be available from a National.
Depth of knowledge:
This facility to choose, to mix and match, and to gain a more comprehensive overview of the market can be a great boon to both contractors and DIYers alike. A good supplier will have an in-depth knowledge of a range of paving products, as well as peripheral items. They should also be able to offer sound advice on suitability, basic laying techniques, design considerations and drainage. The good supplier is interested in helping you find the right products, and not necessarily those that offer the biggest profit.
One of the ways that online suppliers or discount dealers save money is by minimising or even eliminating the money they have to spend on stocking paving and hard-landscaping materials.
And if they can avoid giving yard space over to a display area, that allows the price-obsessed yards to cram in as much other stuff as possible.
The better suppliers will understand the value of a display area, even if it's only 10-20m² with just a couple of samples of each of the main types of materials they stock.
This allows customers to see the paving, walling, aggregate or whatever in natural daylight, and to judge how it has fared in the outdoors.
The very best suppliers, the ones that take their role in supplying better-than-average quality and range will often have a better-than-average display area, showing off a wide mix of materials and ideas in ways that will inspire and persuade the customer to spend the budget with this supplier.
Some suppliers have chosen to specialise in one particular aspect of the hard-landscaping supply industry, and so there are a number of suppliers dedicated solely to providing, say, imported stone paving, or drainage, or concrete block paving.
In many cases, these specialists can offer a better level of service than a typical "all-rounder" Builders' Merchant/Provider, but it's important to understand that some stockists are forced to offer a limited range of stock because they are 'dabblers', rather than quality suppliers. Many small Garden Centres will sell a limited range of stone paving because it offers a reasonable profit margin rather than because they wish to be regarded as stone paving supply specialists.
Cheapest is not always the best deal, but that doesn't mean that paying "over the odds" is a guarantee of better products or better service. However, the better suppliers are usually aware of the prices being charged by their immediate competitors and they will look to at least match, if not better, the 'typical' price in their area. However, when comparing prices, it's important to factor-in other considerations, not least of which is delivery.
Some suppliers will offer free delivery, while others will charge. Some suppliers offer free crane off-loading, while others expect you to provide machinery and/or manpower to unload the wagon.
Most suppliers try to offer a rough estimate of delivery schedule, such as morning or afternoon, but due to the traffic problems, difficulties in accessing or unloading at previous "drops", almost no-one is able to specify delivery at a precise time (the only notable exception is pre-booked delivery of perishable goods such as ready mixed concrete and bitmac products). It's no use throwing your toys out of the pram because the supplier can't promise your sand will be with you at precisely 11:15am on Thursday morning. We live in an imperfect world.
However, make sure the terms and conditions of delivery are clear and understood before agreeing a purchase. If you need materials to be delivered 'off-road', then ensure the supplier knows this and agrees beforehand - there's nowt worse than being faced with 20 tonnes of sub-base and some stroppy driver who point blank refuses to leave the main road and back the wagon across your field.
For most hard-landscaping products, after-sales is largely unnecessary, or at least it should be, but there are always exceptions. If you order too many blocks for the driveway, what's the re-stocking policy of the supplier? Most Merchants/Providers will charge 15-25% to take back excess materials. What about if damaged goods are delivered? How easy will it be to get replacements? Will the supplier get replacement products out to you the same day or will you be expected to wait at their convenience? If it's a defective product, does the supplier have a good relationship with the manufacturer and will they be able to get a Rep out to you immediately? If you find yourself five square metres short of sandstone flags, will the supplier have them in stock for immediate collection or will you have to make a special order?
What doesn't always ensure a good supplier:
Why are they offering cheap prices? What corners have been cut? Are they "seconds"? Is there a catch? There are some suppliers that use their enormous buying power to pass on cheaper prices to the customer, and there are some suppliers that buy-up end-of-line products for sale at a discount. If the price seems suspiciously cheap, ask why: are the products returns? Seconds? Overbakes? Trials? There are bargains to be had, but it pays to check just why they're being offered at a bargain price.
This ties in with the comments regarding cheap prices. Why are the products on special offer? There may well be a legitimate reason, but it could be that the supplier is just desperate to get rid of the stock.
With some manufactured paving materials, there are often 'end-of-line' offers: these come about when a manufacturer decides to end production of a given item, and sells off what stock is left on the understanding that it is 'end-of-line' and it may not be possible to get hold of replacement or additional units at a later date. At least a couple of the larger British manufacturers have started selling-off such products via a certain Auction website. While end-of-line products are usually 'first' quality, some special offers will be seconds and you need to be sure the goods are "fit for purpose" before handing over the dosh. Again, Caveat Emptor, as them Romans used to say.
Also, think carefully about those " Buy 3 Get 1 Free " offers. You can often end up paying more for the three than you would when the so-called sale isn't on.
Work out the price per square metre or the price per tonne and use that to compare. Buying three 20kg bags of slate for 4 quid a bag to get one free may seem like a bargain, but when you work out it's costing you 12 quid for 80kg or 150 quid per tonne, and you can buy the very same aggregate for 90 quid per tonne in a bulk bag, it's not quite the bargain it originally seemed!
450x450mm flags at 4 quid apiece? That's equivalent to almost 20 quid per square metre. Is that really a good price?
100x100x50mm granite setts for only 90p each? Bargain!! But wait a minute! That's 90 quid per m² - almost twice the going rate!
Increasingly, paving is being bought online, by-passing the more traditional route-to-market via a landscape supplier or builders’ merchant, and, because many of these online retailers have lower overheads thanks to not needing to pay for showrooms, multiple yards, and dozens of staff, the cost is usually lower. Not always lower, mind, but usually.
As you’d expect, there are excellent online sources for paving and there are…..well….let’s just say, not quite so excellent. It’s very easy to set-up an online shop selling anything at all, from aardvark food to Zoroastrian altars, and everything in between, and while this ease and simplicity of establishing a business may be a boon for honest, reputable traders, it does present incredible opportunities to spivs, chancers and con men.
A splurge of spending on internet advertising and a site can appear top-of-the-list on a web search; a smart-looking website with pretty pictures, a ‘phone number….and you’re in business. It can all look impressive and above-board but, do they actually have any stock, and, if they do have stock, is it quality materials? Or is it the dross that no reputable trader would touch?
The only way to be reasonably certain of getting quality products from these online-only retailers is to stick to the main road and avoid the dark, distracting side alleys, no matter how enticing the bargain process may seem. Check reviews on ratings sites. Call them up and speak to them to check their knowledge and customer attitude. Best of all, choose a name you know – many of the bigger names in paving and hard-landscaping have an online presence which is not always trading under the same brand.
A good example of this would be UK Stone Direct – the online outlet for Welsh Slate and The Breedon Group.
What to avoid:
Restricted stock lines:
Those outlets with just two types of flags, and one type of block paving really aren't offering a choice. Look for a supplier with a wide range of products.
Off-hand, belittling or arrogant attitude from sales staff:
Sadly, even in the 21st century, some Merchants/Providers are encumbered with Neanderthal attitudes to non-trade customers and women in particular. Sky-hooks, bubbles for spirit levels, and right-handed bricks might be a giggle for the counter staff, but they can intimidate customers, and such sales tactics should be rewarded with the sight of your backside leaving through the main door. The same for those suppliers who make it plain they don't value your custom. Your money is as good as anyone else's and every customer is entitled to courtesy and deference.
Empty yards, or those with sparse stock levels should also be avoided. Most quality suppliers maintain a substantial quantity of stock, at quite some expense to themselves. The yards with little or no stock are usually those that are struggling financially, and you could face a wait of several days or weeks for your goods to arrive.
Unless you are thoroughly familiar with a product, you should never, ever buy sight unseen. Photos used in catalogues, on websites, in promotional leaflets and the like will always show the product in a good light. You should always see the paving "in the flesh" before committing yourself to buy. What looks like a subtle shade of buff in a catalogue could turn out to be garish orange in reality.
Obviously, most contractors will be totally conversant with certain products, and so if they phone to order, say, 150m² of Charcon Woburn paving in Maple, they know what to expect, but a DIYer buying for their own project really ought to make an effort to see the actual product on an existing driveway/patio or at a display centre before placing the order.
And in this internet age, be very wary of sales via auction sites. As mentioned previously, a couple of the bigger manufacturers have started to sell some stock via such sites, and they are generally trustworthy, but the same sites also offer seconds, surplus purchases, downright crap and even stolen goods put up for sale by less reputable traders.
Finally, a word of extreme caution regarding the purchase of reclaimed yorkstone flags from the interweb or an auction site. It's madness!
Describing a flag as yorkstone tells only a small part of the story. How thick? Where from? What sizes? What surface texture?
There are far too many rogues in the reclaimed stone trade, and the only way to be certain is to inspect the stone before buying, marking what you've bought, and checking it on delivery. I hear dozens of tales each year about the unsuspecting being royally ripped off. There are genuinely good reclamation yards, but good reclaimed yorkstone isn't cheap, so choose carefully.
It's not possible to give a comprehensive list of all the better suppliers in Britain and Ireland, but here's a selection of recommendations for suppliers who go the extra mile to provide a better range of products and a higher standard or service:
- Landscape World Paving Centre - Widnes, Cheshire/Merseyside
- Rock Unique - Stone paving specialist supplier in Sevenoaks
- Cowley Stone - Stone paving in a stunning show garden
- UK Stone Direct - Online Purchasing of British Stone from a national brand