Sue Shaw articulates a ‘His & Her’ hardware concept

One woman's take on what it means to run a hardware business -- and be more handy than her husband.

If there’s one stereotype Sue Shaw, owner of Shaw Hardware in Plattsmouth, Neb., is in a position to disqualify, it’s that husbands are equally or more involved than their wives in running a hardware store.

“My husband said it was cheaper to buy me a store than let me keep shopping in them,” said Shaw. “So I took over the store and I run it by myself pretty much.”

Though she gets occasional help from her husband and kids, Shaw is very much the one with the passion for construction, home building, and working with her hands. The Shaws purchased the store a little over 18 months ago. As the fourth owner of the now 103-year-old location, Shaw assumes the mantle at an already established business, but she already has ideas for how to build on and improve the legacy.

For instance: Shaw Hardware was a finalist for the National Hardware Show Reimagine Retail contest, which awarded $100,000 to the store that best answered how it would use the money to improve its business.

Shaw didn’t take home the grand prize, but the store landed among 10 finalists (out of more than 100 entries) for its ambitions to boost its online presence, renovate the space to expand square footage, and create a space for local craftspeople to lead classes and young people to learn new skills.

Of course, some things are not broken and not being fixed, such as the provision of basic services like screen and window repair, sharpening, and custom framing and wallpaper. Shaw has added lamp repair to the roster, as well as an upscale kitchen area, a Milwaukee Tools selection, a home brewery, and a beekeeping section.

More than anything, Shaw has elaborated on what she calls a “his & her” hardware concept. Through a number of improvements to the store (swapping fluorescent lights for chandeliers, for example), plus the mere fact of her visibility as someone who is “more the hardware person than her husband,” Shaw is sending a message to women who are normally intimidated to go to hardware stores.

"We wanted it to be a place where they could come in and feel comfortable,” she said. “We always do [our display windows] as “his” on one side and “her” on the other. Over 50% of my clients are women. There’s a huge single woman household demographic. They like coming in because they can talk, and Pinterest is so big right now. They want to talk to someone about how they can [do projects]. Two ladies the other day were going gangbusters about putting their own bathroom in.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any hiccups in the process of establishing herself in the community.

“A lot of times people would look at me and go, ‘Is your husband here?”’ she said. “It took a little while for some of the older gentlemen to get accustomed to coming in asking a woman about plumbing issues.”

“Then again, an advantage I have is I’m not an intimidating person, and a lot of these young kids who have bought homes earlier in life have found themselves in a situation where they don’t know how to fix things,” she added. “So they can come in here and we sit down and go through it together, we fix it together, we celebrate their successes, and cry with their failures.”

Shaw’s core principle always goes back to this: to remind people that they’re a part of the community, and that they’re there to help. The other is that she’s constantly learning from her customers. This means she’s not afraid to admit it when she doesn’t know something, which can be a challenge for female retailers who are already dealing with imposter syndrome: a commonly cited experience (especially among women) of feeling undeserving and under-qualified, no matter how good you may actually be at your job.

“Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something. Most people appreciate it when I tell them right up front,” Shaw said.

“The worst thing you can do is send someone home with the wrong stuff. Too many times we feel pressured to pretend that we know what we’re talking about when we don’t, and I think that’s where you mess up because sometimes, you only get one shot at that customer. I quizzed everyone yesterday if they knew what two-headed nails were, and only one person knew. Sometimes I think it’s more empowering to say ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’”

The most recent issue of HBSDealer spotlighted women in the hardware retail industry. For our Women Who Mean Business cover story — and more excellent insight from female leaders in our industry — read on.

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