Steve Casler, of Casler Hardware in Jackson, Mich., has a unique memento from when his father bought into Hardware Wholesalers Inc. in 1945: the original receipt.
“One thousand dollars back then was a lot of money,” he said. “They recognize us as one of the pioneers, we are member No. 101.”
Casler, who took over the business from his father 15 years ago, said he’s impressed with how the co-op has grown since his father first signed with the brand.
“They started out with roofing materials, mops and tar, and they’ve grown quite a ways from there,” he said.
But like may independent retailers in Michigan, Casler said his store is feeling the economical effects of the past two years.
“We’re in Michigan, that should sum up the whole thing for you,” he said. “It’s tough, real tough. A loss of 1 million jobs over 10 years. There goes your industry, your housing, blah blah blah, we feel it.”
Casler said the local impact is even more apparent, especially given his store is largely oriented toward the professional contractor.
“We’ve got over 8,000 houses for sale in Jackson County, and Michigan’s got the highest unemployment rate in the nation,” he said.
But while Casler’s business is feeling the pinch, they are still finding ways to stay afloat. One of the key factors has been the years of work they’ve put into building their customer base.
“We’ve lost a lot of the industry, but we’ve still got a lot of loyal customers. We’re in a 200-year-old building. We have dust, we have dirt, we cut pipe, we cut glass. We do the stuff that hardware stores used to do,” he said.
He added that maintaining a good sales staff also makes a big difference.
“We focus on service,” he said. “You don’t have to hunt the aisles to find help, we find you.”
The store also carries many hard-to-find items, from cow kickers to logging tongs and even maple syrup spouts.
Casler said if his store didn’t carry hard-to-find items, focus on service and provide services like pipe and glass cutting, he’d have no way to distinguish himself from the big-box competition right down the street.
Casler said he’s also reacted by keeping the store open for longer hours, amping up his advertising and emphasizing to his sales staff the importance of making a sale to every person who comes into the store.
“That’s all you can do, get up and go to work,” he said.
In regard to his company’s long-term relationship with Do it Best, he said he likes the company’s flexible approach to doing business with him.
“They’re no-pressure,” he said. “We run our thing, and they’re there for us with their product selection. As far as their other programs, we can take it or not take it, and they don’t pressure us to do anything we don’t want to do.”
He also said he likes that he can rely on the co-op to be there with his product when he needs it.
“They do a good job for us. I get a truck from them 51 weeks a year. If I’ve got a problem, I call them and they try to solve it. Otherwise, they do their thing and we do our thing,” he said.SIXTY-FIVE YEARS OF SELLING
Arnold Gerberding’s idea for a hardware co-operative came into existence in 1945. The founding of what was then Hardware Wholesalers Inc.—and what is now Do it Best Corp.—happened long enough ago to stand as time-tested business achievement, but recently enough for those who were there to continue to reflect on the pioneering spirit of the early days.
Home Channel News was able to speak with the current owners of three of the original members of HWI and learned just how they’ve managed to survive, succeed and evolve to their current level of operations through a combination of their relationship with the hardware co-op as well as through their own business practices and ingenuity.
As these profiles reveal, the pioneering spirit continues for the independent hardware store.