About a year ago, I wrote a post titled “Do Not Underestimate Harbor Freight Tools.” Harbor Freight has a sizable footprint in the United States, and they keep opening more stores.
At the end of that post, I wrote: Do you think Harbor Freight is content with the way things are now, or are they working towards building something different?
Well, it seems they are working towards something different, or at least trying new things.
Harbor Freight’s email newsletter titles have varied:
Urgent Price Cuts
Wow! 15% off Everything
Final Day for FREE BATTERIES
This Coupon is VERY SPECIAL
Everything Must Go
Tool Disposal Notice
“Tool disposal notice?” That’s the opposite or reassuring.
Most of Harbor Freight’s email newsletters in 2020 were focused on sales, coupons, and promos. There were a couple of product-focused newsletters, but to be honest I never paid much attention to them.
And then I noticed a new email, with the subject line Reliable Performance at Unbeatable Prices.
This wasn’t another “Icon Beats Snap-on,” “Tool Disposal,” or promo newsletter, it focused on Harbor Freight Tools.
The newsletter opens up to the above image, where Harbor Freight invites you to check out their full line of compressors – find the right compressor for any job.
“Find the right compressor for any job.” This is much different than the message they usually send out.
In the newsletter, Harbor Freight’s “reliable performance” claims are centered around the McGraw 3 gallon air compressors, priced at $60. They have breakdowns of the features and specs, and images of the two compressors’ 5-star ratings.
THIS is how you sell tools, not with “tool disposal” notices.
I’ve seen messaging in online community forums, where it’s said tool users can look to Harbor Freight for tools or supplies, as long as the products don’t have a motor or involve compressed air. I wonder if user sentiments are changing.
With their ultra quiet Fortress air compressors, Harbor Freight has turned their attention towards California Air Tools.
Maybe they read my post, where I question why Harbor Freight is comparing Fortress air compressors against different classes of compressors instead of competing like-quiet brands and models.
There’s still an “Instant Savings” entry, and although their “compare to” model is also an ultra-quiet model, the California Air Tools is only slightly more expensive. I still don’t like how Harbor Freight selects the “compare to” models based on current pricing of competitor models. Plus, it’s not even accurate – the Menards is $156 with mail-in rebate, not $175. The California Air Tools model is $155.
There’s also a “closeout special” in the newsletter – I suppose they’re clearing out Central Pneumatic air compressors in favor of the McGraw.
Premium air accessories?
Where’s the “unbelievable low prices” messaging here?
Looking at another newsletter, there are user projects and links to some of the tools used to create them. At the end there’s a note to use Harbor Freight’s projects hashtag in social media posts for a chance to be featured in future newsletters.
So, let’s recap.
Harbor Freight is experimenting with messaging such as “reliable performance,” they’ve improved their product-based marketing, and they’re emphasizing customer projects and efforts.
Maybe this isn’t a brand new approach, but I can see a definitive shift when looking at how their email newsletters are different now compared to last year.
Going back to 2019, there are newsletters about “free events,” liquidation sales, inventory blowouts, super coupons, parking lot sales, and such. Even when there was a new product mention, such as a new color of tool cart, the emails were nearly entirely composed of paper flyer-style coupons. Sometimes a super coupon would feature a new tool in a comparison chart against a popular brand model.
Harbor Freight has thrown around words such as “professional precision” and “rugged construction” before. “Reliable performance” seems to be a new claim for them.
The “unbelievably low prices” never really seemed to convey “quality” to me. Actually, Harbor Freight never really seemed synonymous with high quality either.
Maybe this is all just a marketing phase they’re going through, but I hope they keep it up.
With respect to their project-focus newsletters – that’s a brilliant strategy and one that some other brands (such as Craftsman and Ryobi) would be smart to emulate.
Dean in Des Moines
“Reliable” and “Oil-Free” do not go together in the world of compressors in my experience.
Perhaps only if you mean it may work in sub-zero temperatures or upside down where an oil-bath compressor might falter. To be fair – oil-free compressors seem to account for a big share of the small compressor market.
My 30 year old Porter Cable pancake compressor would disagree with you.
I’m not in construction, and it doesn’t see all day, every day use. But I’ve used it for nail guns, tire inflation, occasional running tools that require way more air than it provides so it never shuts off, etc.
So far the maintenance has been nothing more than draining the tank on occasion.
We have a cheapo porter cable pancake compressor at work that we use to run a diaphragm oil pump. Since it’s not really large enough to run a pump like that, it pumps very slowly, and will often run for 6 or 8 hours straight (never shutting off the whole time). It’s still going strong after years of abuse.
Ryobi already does social media pretty well (look at the Ryobi Nation website + their Instagram feed) with featured projects, demonstrations, and featuring user projects.
I’m surprised you made no comments about wondering how well their tools will match their new marketing.
Also, Ryobi does do project marketing on their website. Not sure if they still do as much. I think they had some sort of Ryobi Nation tag or something like that, which I never thought clicked very well. I’m a Ryobi user (many tools/garden equip), and I don’t want to join a clique, I want to do things, build things, and fix things. Project marketing appeals, Ryobi Nation does not. The latter, come to think of it, makes me think of lower-quality pink tools, Instagram, and non-serious usage.
Ryobi still has a lot of projects, along with How-To’s. They used to run periodic project contests, not sure if they’ve done one recently, but some of the How To’s are pretty recent.
I noticed when I was browsing projects last week that a lot of the user projects are pictures of builds, so if you’re looking for projects with plans and detailed information, you’ll find less (yes, I would expect this – creating plans and such is a lot of extra work).
flow rate @ pressure is one of the first things that keeps me out of HF compressors. Not to say I didn’t get one for my dad to air up his tires. He doesn’t need much – 55 dollar compressor is good to go there.
But when I compare their higher pressure jobs against other competitors like the craftsman/porter cable or the Puma – for a few dollars more you get more capacity from a name brand with a warranty. Which is why my 6 gallon pancake is a Porter cable not a HF. but I did look.
I’m curious as to the comparison of their 10gallon, 175psi job as I need more air to run a spray painter.
I’ve personally had good luck with their compressors…
Had 2 of the 25 gal upright oil lubed units run in parallel for nearly 2 years to supply air to my CNC mill. Forgot to turn them off before going out of town for vacation and had a hose break that caused them to run for a week solid. Used up all the oil in both, burning up one, but the other still works fine.
Replaced with a McGraw 175psi model at that point and have been happy with it as well. It supplies enough air for mill operation and mist cooling without being paralleled…
The fortress compressors are definitely reliable.
This is an interesting turnaround. They seem to be, as I heard from somewhere, targeting Sears in a way. Readily affordable tools for home mechanics, some nicer stuff for professionals, and an easy warranty process, depending on the store and product. Ultimately, I don’t think I’d trust someone named diy dummy for miter saw recommendations, but I may take a look at Harbor Freight for more things in the future. Actually, having the Franklin stud finder available there was a big turning point for me in my opinion of them. It’s sort of like having Pica pencils available there; a pro brand that only pros and involved hobbyists tend to recognize as desirable. That’s just my opinion, though. It’ll be interesting to see how the company grows!
I have the Fortress four gallon compressor and it is a little beast. Cost was $150 when I bought it and it was worth every penny.
It will be interesting to see how harbor freight fares going up market.
Most companies have to set up a new brand to go up market. The Honda/Acura strategy.
Although from what I understand Lowes was a discount hardware store when they first opened? So it has been done.
I would like to support HF. I really like what they did donating all the PPE during the pandemic and the charity they give to vocational schools. However 99.9% of the products are from PRC and I avoid that like the plague.
Maybe if they go up market they could get to a price point where we could see some USA made tools? But then it’s no longer cheap and I may as well just buy it online from whoever is the cheapest.
Like I said it will be interesting to see how this works out long-term.
One issue with HF is still their warranty. I don’t use my compressor every day so 90 days vs X number of years is better for me. I got one of the Husky 8 gallon hot dogs for less than a HF Mcgraw compressor a little over a year ago. Been fine and I have a 2 year warranty. If HF had a year instead of 90 day or if you could upgrade the warranty for a small cost, they would probably get more sales.
Exactly. This. I cannot buy any power tool of consequence at HF with really no warranty (more like a 90-day return policy.)
If they want to get in the game, they have to compete with the big boys and include a 2 to 3 year warranty on their compressors. Even a cheap-O Porter Cable pancake offers that.
Last I checked they would still sell you an extended warranty.
right so now you paid more for the HF tool vs doing 5 minutes of shopping.
i want to know why hf carries so many different brands all by them. sears had craftsman, craftsman professional, and a few different brand or there extra cheap stuff. lowes has there brand as kobalt. menards has masteforce and performax as there store brand and had tool shop. im curious how many stor brands hf acually has. i myself think of hf as a diy and cheaply made tools with a few gems. i tend to go there for the cheaper stuff of auto parts store equivalent diy style tool for cheaper than the auto parts store can sell it or if I need something asap i cant find. I do comend them for trying to change there image and i thing they are heading in the right direction for that
Lowes is loosing touch with its branding. They have Kobalt, Crafstman, now this new ‘Flex’ line.. plus the dewalt & bosch etc lineups.
Random question, tangentially related to this post.
People who have 10-40gal compressors at home, do you leave them pressurized all the time? Assuming normal home owner usage not every day use…
I have always left mine pressurized. I will drain it when I think about it(once a year or two)lol.
I don’t leave it on though. I don’t want it to leak down and cycle on at 1a.m.
No, I only charge-up my 30+ year old Craftsman 20g cast iron oil pump 220v compressor when needed (nail guns, paint sprayer, blow out the garage, high psi/flow use). I drain it 2-3x/ year.
Koko The Talking Ape
I think reliability is the hardest quality to create, and also for a consumer to determine. People won’t (or shouldn’t) listen to that one guy saying his particular compressor or whatever was reliable, because it might be one out of a million.
Actually building reliable products requires good manufacturing and good quality control, even good HR policies. It might take years to establish, and more years to prove to the consumer. Some companies never actually achieve it, no matter what they do.
I think HF might sometimes provide good value for the money, but I’ll wait to see if they can make reliable machines.
The California Air Tools 15020C is over $400 everywhere right now. I $155 2-gallon compressor is not really a comparison to a 10-gallon compressor, so the 15020C (at 15g) is actually a closer equivalent. The HF pricing seems decent.
True, but I was referring to the 2 gallon hand-carry Fortress.
California Air Tools also has an 8 gallon compressor – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07N528213/?tag=toolguyd-20
The Harbor Freight Fortress is 1.5HP; the California Air Tools 8 gallon is 1.0HP and the 15 gallon is 2.0HP. It’s a hard choice, but if in Harbor Freight’s shoes I’d have compared their 10 gallon Fortress to the 8 gallon California Air Tools model. The 8 gallon is currently priced at $206.
My bro-inlaw still has a 1 gallon(I think its a Central Pneumatic ) pre-hf for about 25 years.
However it is oiled.
You can have long life and quiet.
Or lightweight and oil free.
If it gets used weekly,you can only choose two.
I do pressure testing for pipelines as well as Natural Gas pads. We recently purchased the Fortress 6 gallon pancake compressor. It was not a good start to “reliable performance.” First, the box was a little beat up but didn’t look like anything was broken. Nothing on the compressor was broken from looking at it. However, the plastic panel that sits on the gauges was turned to one side rather than centered. That was a bit of a red flag to me. So we went to use it on a gas pad yesterday to run a pressure pump. This is the first time it’s ever been used out of the box. We plug it in…. and you guessed it, nothing. The thing didn’t work out of the box. We were told “there’s a reset switch.” Looked everywhere, no reset anywhere. So we were left with a non working compressor making us look like fools and slowing us down. Ended up having to get a rental from a place close by because of a compressor that’s being marketed under the guise of “reliable performance.” Was gonna buy one personally, but I will not now.
That indeed doesn’t speak much to reliability!
With products that are DOA, I tend to give brands the benefit of the doubt. Random factory defects aren’t unheard of, and there’s also the potential for damage during shipping.
I’m not saying that deserve a pass on a DOA air compressor, especially given how much it inconvenienced you, but that there’s a non-zero chance something similar could have happened with other brands or models.
The problem here is if you are going to brand yourself as reliable, you better make damn sure that you are far more reliable than all your competitors and potentially for years on end. GM, Ford, Chrysler had to do just that to get some market share back that Honda/Toyota had stolen. You can’t just match them on reliability (or just talk about it in adds), you have to be better than them for a long period if you want to change or maybe just maintain the perception that you are in fact reliable. The internet doesn’t make it easy when anyone can write a review (true or not), claiming unreliability. Sears didn’t have an internet headwind in their day. Its not going to be easy for HF. Hell my 10 year old knows that HF is the store where they sell Chinesium.
I was in the market for a quiet compressor and nearly purchased a Fortress. I compared their stats with Lowes quiet tech and ultimately went with the Lowes. Slightly better stats with a 3 year warranty included.
I grabbed a Fortress 4 gallon on sale, and it’s been amazing. It’s as quiet as my daughter’s tiny compressor she uses for air brushing on canvas, tops off in a shockingly short time and is very solidly built.
I’ll tell you what is interesting to me. HF is available just about everywhere, you can get a no questions asked warranty on all their serious tools and they keep track of the things I’ve bought so I don’t even have to keep the receipt. That’s better than any other place I buy tools and the newer brands their carry reflect that quality. The Hercules 4.5″ 13 amp disc grinder is a perfect example. It’s just as expensive as the Dewalt, but if the Dewalts craps out, I don’t drive over two blocks and pick up another one. I get to call Dewalt, deal with shipping hassles, and see a new grinder in a week or two. That makes the HF a better value for me.