From the issue: Four "cool" stores

Islands Ace Hardware of Savannah, Georgia.

Being the “coolest” hardware store doesn’t necessarily mean you are the biggest or the most profitable; what it more likely signifies is an entrepreneurial spirit to be bold and uniquely different while being deeply loyal to your customer base.

These special qualities are shared by Rocking R Ace Hardware of Harrisonburg, Virginia; Henkle’s Ace Hardware of Webb City, Missouri; Miner’s Ace Hardware of San Luis Obispo, California; and Islands Ace Hardware of Savannah, Georgia, as these retailers were honored by their parent organization with “Coolest Hardware Store” awards — selected from more than 4,800 locally owned and operated Ace stores worldwide.

ROCKING R ACE HARDWARE

“I’ve been wanting to win this award since they’ve had it,” said Bill Freeman, store manager at Rocking R, which in its 60 years has evolved into a destination location where thousands of customers flock to attend one of its 21 annual events.

There are fun events like “Ladies Night Out” and “All About Honeybees,” as well as profitable endeavors such as the Fall Tool Show, which brings out major vendors, including Milwaukee Tool and Stihl. Over two days, the store will generate 50% of its monthly sales, making it the biggest event of the year.

Taking risks is another Rocking R forte. About half of Rocking R’s 7,500-sq.-ft. space is comprised of hand and power tools, a category Freeman readily admits “would send most hardware retailers running and screaming from it [because of low margins and high competition]. But we have a created a nice niche out of it.”

And in the process, it has endeared itself to customers like “Chop” Hill from Mount Crawford, Virginia, who has been shopping there for about 30 years. “What makes them cool is the personnel,” he said. “If you want good, personal service, you’ve got to come here.”

HENKLE’S ACE HARDWARE

John and Cris Henkle of Ace Hardware of Webb City, Missouri, always wanted to own and operate an historic downtown hardware store; unfortunately, small towns don’t always have the traffic necessary to support an Ace.

“So we decided to recreate the feel of an old-fashioned hardware store with the building as well as the service,” Cris said. “In addition, we wanted to change the demographics of the typical hardware store shopper of 55-plus men and appeal to both women and younger homeowners.”

Instead of sterile white floors, the Henkles installed mocha stained concrete floors to provide a warm appearance that would highlight their gift and paint areas.

Henkle’s on-site greenhouse production and gift area has driven business growth. The retailer sells more than 600 hanging baskets yearly. In addition, 2015 marks the second year of mum production, with over 300 mums of single, double and triple color combinations. “To get the best quality of green goods, we began growing annuals, perennials and hanging baskets about five years ago, and we have developed quite a following,” she said.

To engage customers, the Henkles host a call-in radio show every Saturday morning from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., where they talk home improvement and gardening with live callers. “We not only have a large local listener-ship, we have listeners online that reach out by email and Facebook,” she said. “Finally, we have geared our advertising to reach women and younger homeowners through not only the radio show but also through Facebook, Twitter and bi-monthly emails. We are also currently developing our Pinterest and Instagram presence as well.”

ISLANDS ACE HARDWARE

When Randy West became interested in opening an Ace Hardware, he didn’t know a lot about the stores. So he began visiting Ace stores throughout the U.S. to get an idea. He came away impressed by the breadth of product offerings.

“I wanted my store to be known for having items no one else has,” as long as it met the needs of the community, West said. Islands Ace Hardware in Savannah, Georgia, features perfumes, greeting cards, jewelry, as well as fishing bait and crab traps, which has meant big business on Wilmington Island. “We take pride in providing the community with what they want, what they ask for, and we cater to their needs,” said Brian West, store manager and Randy’s son.

"I wanted my store to be known for having items no one else has.”

 Now in its eighth year, 2015 is shaping up as Islands Ace’s best year. The flourishing gift and clothing department is a significant driver. Here customers can search for brand-name clothes as well as gifts for family. This may be an unconventional product mix for a hardware store, but it is a differentiator for Islands. “We’re always looking for something new, something fresh to bring on,” Brian West said.

The store also has its own post office, from where customers can ship the gift-wrapped products they purchase in the store.

MINER'S ACE HARDWARE

Before Paul Filice took over as president/co-owner of Miner’s Ace Hardware of San Luis Obispo, the store was comprised of two detached buildings. To reestablish what it deemed would be good traffic flow, the new management went through an arduous reconstruction project to create one building featuring a unique design with a curved layout that draws customers to five different locations.

Along the path customers can visit a full live goods nursery with pottery, soils and artwork. Miner’s won an award for its nursery, which has been called “a magical labyrinth” filled with numerous plants and “hidden treasures.”

In another “neighborhood,” customers can shop the vast lumberyard, which can supply most construction projects.

“Our customers really appreciate our product selection and great garden environment,” Filice said. “We recently expanded some of our selections to include brands like Big Green Egg, Yeti and Stihl, which have been a great part of our growth. We are also partnering with Talley Farms, a local organic vegetable grower. They use us as a distribution point for their vegetables. It’s very similar to a wine club. However, the vegetables are picked up instead of shipped out.”

Filice said Miner’s continues to look for growth opportunities and recently extended its search outside San Luis Obispo County. “We are always looking for unique opportunities,” he said.

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