Passion play

Ace Hardware of Titusville, Fla., reels in the customers

Titusville, Fla. — Running a hardware store isn’t rocket science. But for the team at Ace Hardware Titusville, rocket science is never too far removed from the business equation.

Within plain view of the store’s parking lot across the wide Indian River sits the Kennedy Space Center and the Space Shuttle launch pad. Space launches are part of the culture here, and the nation’s space exploration apparatus is part of the customer base for the store, which has sent merchandise into orbit at least once.

“It was a little plastic gear, about a foot long,” said store manager Dale Bertels, who has been with the store for 18 years. “We had to find it — and it took a lot of research.”

The space program isn’t firing on nearly as many cylinders as the golden days of the Space Shuttle. But home improvement is in lift-off mode, according to Bertels and Bill Pastermack, owner. After rising to a peak in 2005, sales came back to earth until 2011, when sales jumped 7% to a new high. And so far this year, sales are running about 19% ahead of 2011.

How is the store able to post such a surge of its all-time record year in an economy like this one? “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Pastermack said.

He described a number of small steps for a hardware store operator that add up to a giant leap for hardware store sales. Hiring (and retaining) good people is one. Communicating with fellow Ace dealers is another. And a willingness to experiment is another big part of the store’s success.

For instance, fishing.

“I love to fish, and in our smaller store, we set up an 8-ft. display of fishing gear, basically so I could get stuff at wholesale prices,” Pastermack said.

One thing led to another. Customers trickled in. Word spread. And the fishing section expanded to 16 ft., then 24 ft. And today’s store has become a destination retailer, according to customer feedback.

It doesn’t hurt that the region is known as the Red Fish capital of the world.

At a recent “Hunt For Red” fishing tournament, of which Titusville Ace was a sponsor, Pastermack said three different people from Orlando, Fla., — a 45-minute drive from Titusville — had heard about the store’s status as a fisherman’s paradise. “That’s what blows me away. About a year and a half ago, a West Marine pulled out of town, and we became the place.”

Another growth experiment took place in the apparel section, where the team saw demand rise for surf-related clothing and footwear. At about the same time, Pastermack was having trouble finding a tenant  for the small space next to the hardware store. So he opened a surf shop called “Go Native.” 

“One thing I’m not afraid to do is give something a try,” said Pastermack, part of a retailing family that includes his sister JoAnn Nichols, who runs smaller stores in Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral. “But you have to give a niche a full year before you can figure out if it’s working or not. You can’t do three months. And if nobody has even asked for it in three months, maybe they don’t know you have it yet.”

The list of experimental categories is lengthy: high-end sunglasses, Stihl power equipment, pet food, Craftsman tools. And the most recent addition: Ace’s new paint-and-primer in one Clark+Kensington.

“I’m really excited about Clark+Kensington because now we have our own name brand,” Pastermack said. “I’ve always thought we needed to take Ace off the label for paint. It’s great paint, but customers think of it as ‘not good enough to be a name brand.’ Now we have it.”

Networking with peers is another path to sales. Pastermack meets once a month with the 46-store Central Florida Ace group. “The fact that we get together, advertise together and share things helps us,” he said. “Finding out: ‘Hey what are you paying for that, where are you getting that, or what’s working for you.’ ”

A tangible result of such meetings is in the pet food aisle, where a Taste of the Wild pet food product has emerged as a major hit. “We almost have all Central Florida Ace dealers carrying this Taste of the Wild food now. And it all started with an employee who was here who suggested we carry it. He used to sell it at the place where he was before.”

Pastermack has also found success by following the playbook handed down by the co-op headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill.

“When it comes to Ace programs, I’m an early adopter,” he said. “My feeling is if you follow Ace’s guidelines and do it the way they suggest, there’s a pretty good chance it will work. They put a lot of money and thought into programs, and they’re not going to do something that’s not at least semi-successful for a lot of people.”

The old adage of location, location and location rings true for Pastermack and Ace Hardware of Titusville. The location of the well-trafficked store on the Indian River with ample parking and 30,000 sq. ft. was a wish come true for the owner, who previously set up shop in a 900-sq.-ft. store about a mile further up the road.

“I drove by this building for 11 years,” he said of his current location — a former light manufacturing facility that was a grocery store before that. “I would say, ‘Wow, this would make a great hardware store.’ Then one day, I saw the for-sale sign.”

A few rounds of complicated negotiations followed, along with $550,000 in remodeling, and the business took off.

The proof of a location is in the performance for the 48-year-old retail business. “Last year was the best year ever in the history of the business.” 

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