A Purchase for Eternity | Traditional Retail vs. Online Memorial Monument Purchase

By on December 21, 2014

15 years ago most people thought they would never purchase things online. They couldn’t trust it. They felt that by purchasing their items in a local store, not only did they get it instantly, but they knew where to turn when they had a problem and they were assured of getting that item.

Fast forward to today. People are purchasing nearly everything online. Cars, food, homes, televisions, toys. There is no limit to what you can purchase over the internet.

But Monuments?

I have been a monument retailer for the last 8 years (a short time by industry standards).

I started my shop in 2006, selling memorials to the families of my area. Prior to that I worked for a wholesaler who imported granite of different colors for monument builders. We have been very blessed to be as successful as we have been. I started up in a bad economy and since we have grown to having a good display and nice office.

We have won several awards for monuments we have produced for our customers as well as receiving Memorialist of the Year for 2013 by the Southern Monument Builders Association. I currently reside as the President of that same association.

My business is also a member of the Monument Builders of North America and I sit on several committees.

When I started in 2006, I knew the importance of making sure my customers had quick access to me and what I could do online. So, of course, a web presence was vital. However, I never had any desire to sell monuments directly online.

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What is What?

Since we are located in a community that is heavily centered around a major university (Texas A&M University), a great deal of our sales are handled via email.

Most people in this day and age do not live where they grew up. While 50-60 years ago most people didn’t move far from where they were raised, that is not the case anymore. And for us, we have a lot of people who attended our beloved university and desire to retire in the area. Most of those families have kids who are scattered all over the country, and some the world.

So clearly we deal with a lot of email sales.

An email sale and an internet sale are two different things.

For the monument industry, an internet sale would be classified as a memorial that was sold directly from the internet with little or no communication between the consumer and the retailer. That would be an email, phone call, etc.

An email sale would be a sale that is primarily discussed, designed, and transmitted through email. There may be several phone calls that correspond during this time and the customer may even make a visit to the retailer’s location.

What to Consider

There are very important aspects to understand when considering who to purchase from. The questions you must ask yourself when you begin this portion of planning are:

  • How important is the quality of what I am purchasing?
  • Does what I am purchasing fit within the allotted restrictions that the cemetery allows for me?
  • Who is going to install my memorial?
  • What are the TRUE costs of what I am purchasing?

It is important to determine whether the online retailer or your local memorialist fits the criteria you desire. Not all online retailers are bad, and not all traditional retail memorialists are good and vice versa.

But it is always important to keep in mind the question “Why”.

Why does this price seem SO much lower than the other prices I have seen? Odds are much more likely that something was left out or missed when quoting that stone to the other ones. Maybe the size is a little different.

DO NOT be afraid to ask questions so that you can understand WHY the price is different.

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Consider the Costs

There are a lot of online stores who have monuments listed and a list of designs you can pick from. They are pre-priced.

You can punch in your credit card and order any one of those items and you are done.

But there are some things you must be aware of.

No matter where you purchase a monument, there are 5 things that will dictate what the price of that stone is. No two monument companies are alike since we all typically configure our prices differently.

However, what controls your price on any given stone are:

  • Shape
  • Size
  • Color
  • Polish and
  • LOCATION

I put emphasis on that last part because we are discussing online purchasing. A predetermined price does not account for the location and setting fees that may or will be assessed.

There are nearly 300 – 400 cemeteries within 90 miles of my location.

Each is operated by a different organization; has a different set of rules; and has its own contact for marking the plots in order for us to install the memorial.

There may be certain times we are required to contact the cemetery to schedule installation, or a certain gate code to get in. We have even had some cemeteries where there is no possible way to get to the plot without a large crane.

When we sell a monument, all of these things are factored into the price of the stone. This is why you will typically find that the price online is, in many cases, half the price, if not lower, than your average brick and mortar memorialist.

On several occasions, I have had families that have already purchased a monument online; it was shipped to their home; and now they are contacting us to see what it costs to get that stone installed.

My shop is rare because we will install stones that are purchased online. However, I am very honest with our customers. It is far more expensive to purchase the stone online and then have us install the stone than it would have been if they would have purchased the stone from us in the first place.

We don’t do this to be rude or insensitive. The costs involved, what it takes for us to install it, and the risks we take on are the reasons for this. If we damage the stone, we will need to be able to replace it.

The equipment we operate to perform the job is expensive as well as our trained staff. All of these things, plus the cost of our insurance and overhead, have to be accounted for.

On top of it all, our customers who purchase directly from us clearly need to take priority. But we will install them because I cannot stand to leave a family in a situation where they purchased a stone and have no way to install it. In our area, we are the only shop that will install that stone.

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Where is the Artwork?

When a memorial is purchased from a typical retail memorialist, you should expect that you can customize that design of the stone however you wish.

Moving the name down a few inches, creating different roses from pictures, using different textures are all things that go into creating a memorial that tells the story and life of the individual it is for.

Most shops will keep brochures handy to give families ideas. But it is up to the artist to tell the story the family is requesting.

There are some online stores that will do the same, but it is not likely that you will get the attention you need from a place that makes getting in touch with an individual over the phone difficult.

Make sure that you can either directly talk to or email a single individual to get certain particular items adjusted that you want.

Our philosophy is that every stone is unique. They all tell their own story.

That means that every design needs to be one of a kind. While we may utilize certain features several times, we rarely replicate a stone twice.

When we do, it is typically for the same family. We are very I have all of the brochures and flyers here at my shop for people to see. And the truth is I have to dust them off to use them because they rarely get touched.

Most of what we do is sold off of ideas from our customers; pictures of work we have completed; and sketches from stories told to us by the family.

We have made Lego shaped monuments, sculpted trees that are shaped to be crosses and many others.

Any shop that can create custom memorials from art work and do a good job should also be expected to do outstanding work on even the simplest of jobs.

What to Look For

Out of all of the shops across the country that sell monuments (including the online companies), you can expect that fewer than 50% of them are actual Memorial Artists.

Even still, fewer can be considered Stone Carvers (meaning they can carve stone shapes on their own) and only a handful of them are actual sculptors.

This doesn’t mean that the other 50% can’t do what you are looking for. It just means that they are different.

Don’t think of the Memorial as a commodity, an item you can shop around for until you get the best price.

Think of it as a work of art.

You should be interviewing the artist and designers to find who you think can do the best job. But there are a few credentials that you can look for to quickly determine the worth of the shop you are dealing with.

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There Are a Few Organizations to Look For

Are they a member of the MBNA (Monument Builders of North America)?

This is the National Memorialist association that many are members of. The MBNA have set standards in order to be a member. You can even look up the members in your area on their website, www.monumentbuilders.org

Are they a member of their regional association?

Here in Texas the association that represents us is the Southern Monument Builders Association, which, like many others, has values that they hold their members to. http://southernmonumentbuilders.com

There are a number of these associations around the country. Mid-America, the Carolinas, and New England just to name a few. Just like you would find an “ASE” sticker on the window or door of your local mechanic’s office, you should find association member stickers on the windows or doors of these shops.

Finally, are they a member of the AICA (American Institute for Commemorative Art)?

The AICA is an invitation only association that upholds a standard of artwork produced. Members only become a part of the association by being nominated by existing members that see the quality in what they produce. From there they are to submit examples of their work to a committee that votes on whether or not they are a good candidate and fit to join. http://www.monuments-aica.com

This organization is strictly about the artwork. Being a member gives you certification that you would put out by your name. Think of members of this association like a board certified Doctor.

I know that this is a lot of information, but the purchase of a memorial is an important one.

The expense can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to the millions.

However, the decisions made are more lasting than the decisions you would make while building a house, and similarly effective to what you will pay.

Always think of your purchase of a memorial as the last gift you will ever give your loved one.

It is the one gift that will truly tell their story and legacy for the ages to come. It will outlast any of the paper work that marks their existence in history.


By Tony Watson of Watson Signs & Monuments