Issue: March/April 2010
Hart Fought Battle
Named one of the country’s best independent stores, Hartville Hardware has taken on big-box competitors and won. Learn its keys to success.
Twice a year, in November and February, woodworkers, contractors and homeowners from throughout Ohio and neighboring states descend upon the town of Hartville for a two-day tool sale at Hartville Hardware. Tool department manager Larry Sommers estimates that 2,500 to 3,000 people show up at the 100,000-square-foot store each day to watch demonstrations by more than 40 vendors and get bargains on everything from electric drills to 500-pound lathes.
“We probably have more woodworking tools than anybody in Ohio — probably in a three-state area,” Sommers says. “We’re swamped. It’s a big event.”
But tools are just a small fraction of the merchandise on display. Hartville Hardware carries more than 60,000 items, including work clothes, flooring and decorative accessories for the home.
“One thing I always hear from customers is, ‘If we can’t find it anywhere else, we come here,’ ” Hartville Hardware president Howard Miller says with a chuckle.
The store even does warranty repairs on every power tool and John Deere tractor it sells.
The extensive selection alone might have been enough to convince George Whalin to include Hartville Hardware in his latest book, Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America
(Portfolio Books, $26.95).
But the author and business consultant from Carlsbad, Calif., says the family-owned establishment is also committed to providing exemplary customer service — a characteristic shared by every retailer in the book.
“Most big retailers are looking for shortcuts and expedient ways to deal with their customers,” Whalin says.
That’s not how these retailers do business. “They develop real relationships with their customers that are sustainable over a long period,” says Whalin.
So just how does Hartville Hardware continue to thrive in an era of big-box and chain stores? Miller divulges a few of his secrets.
IB What is the biggest reason for Hartville Hardware’s success?
A network of employees. Over 40 percent of our 180 employees have been with us for more than 10 years. About 50 percent are full time. Most places try to run on as few employees as they can. We decided to be different by having a lot of knowledgeable people. We always say, “We’re not in every town, but we are in every aisle.”
IB How do you retain good people?
In our business, we pay well. We try to treat them right.
IB How do you train new employees?
We’re very specialized. If you’re hired, you’re in one of 22 departments. You work with people who have been there for a long time.
IB Does family ownership play a part in the store’s success?
My brother Wayne and I are here. We take care of customers. If there’s a problem, we’re always around to help. And there’s eight of the next generation in our business. The big boxes can’t do that. They’re [headquartered] somewhere out of state, really have no personal connections to their stores. ... We can react quicker and be part of the community. Most of our business is done within 10 miles of our store.
IB Are your prices comparable to those offered by big-box stores?
We are part of a 4,000-store buying group, Do it Best. So yes, we are competitive with the big boxes. During the tool sale, they shouldn’t be able to touch us with the special deals and so forth. But our managers shop every month — they have to go out to the competition and make sure our prices are in line with theirs.
IB Many independent stores have
rigid return policies. What is yours?
We don’t want any of our customers to own anything they bought from us that they’re not happy with. If there’s a problem, we take care of it. Our written policy is 30 days. But we’re flexible. We’re here to make the customer happy.
IB How have you been affected by the recession?
It probably would have been tougher as a new business. But we’re already very established. We have a good rapport with our customers.
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