Fair Faucet Sure, the Web can help you find bargains on computers and books. But fancy bathroom fixtures? Well, that too.
By Scott Medintz

(MONEY Magazine) – The dripping began a few months after my wife and I bought the apartment. It was the bathroom sink. After the hot water stopped working altogether we called a plumber, who said it made more sense to buy new faucets than to repair the old ones. This was bad news. The old pedestal sinks, with vintage faucets and porcelain-handled knobs, were among the old apartment's charms, and I dreaded defiling them with modern replacements. I knew my local hardware store wouldn't have the right faucet--but the last place I expected to find it was on the Internet.

In fact, I would never have turned to the Web at all if our real-world shopping experience hadn't been so frustrating. On our first sally to a nearby plumbing-supply store, we found that passable modern replicas of vintage faucets are widely available for around $165 to $215 from manufacturers like Delta, Moen and Kohler. To us, though, the replicas looked retro in an ostentatious way, with tall, arching, baroque spouts or ornate, mannered designs. Some even had handles labeled "hot" and "cold" in some kind of Old English script--or worse, in French. They were simply trying too hard.

Many stops later, we found what we wanted at a specialty store in a ritzy neighborhood: the German company Dornbracht's "Liberty," a true meeting of form and function. The bad news? It cost $450. And we needed two.

Now, we all know the Web's a great place to find computer-memory upgrades or books or CDs--everything but the kitchen sink. But, really, who'd look for plumbing supplies--an invention of ancient Rome--via the medium of the new millennium? In desperation, I gave it a shot and was surprised to find that there are literally hundreds of sites devoted to plumbing-related products and services. (For a pretty full list, go to edmonton.shaw.wave.ca/~grahamd/500plbg.htm.)

To be sure, this isn't a mature e-commerce market. Some of these sites offer little more than an address and phone number for ordering a catalogue. Others have online showrooms, including prices. But only a few--such as Faucet Outlet (www.faucet.com) and World Wide Decorative Plumbing & Hardware (www.uhi.com)--offer online purchasing.

The site that came through for me was run by Action Supply (www.actionsupply.com), a Florida-based plumbing wholesaler. Not that I was instantly wowed: The whole inventory wasn't pictured, and the prices didn't seem great. But the site did show Dornbracht's offerings. In the absence of an online-buying mechanism, I phoned and reached a saleswoman named Linda. "The list price is $450," she said. Oh, well, it was worth a try, but that was as steep as the fancy store nearby.

Then Linda surprised me. "So I can give it to you for $292.50," she said. That meant I'd get what I wanted at a 35% discount. Not bad. "And if I wanted two of them," I ventured, "could you do any better?" A pause. Had I pressed my luck too far? "I can give them to you for $270 each," Linda told me, "but that's the lowest I can go." Even with $20 shipping, this was little more than half what I would have paid locally.

Maybe this didn't count as a pure Web transaction, since I'd had to make my order by phone, but I'll take savings like that anytime. (When I checked, I found that neither Faucet Outlet nor World Wide were able to match Action Supply's price.)

There were additional wrinkles. Action Supply's site didn't picture the exact faucet I wanted, so there was some confusion over which model it was. And it took nearly a month and several calls before I actually got my faucets. But in the end, I came away with greater respect for the Web as a consumer tool for purchases of all kinds. Even better, I didn't have to learn French just for my morning shave.