Litchfield, Mich.-based Wolfinger Hardware was already going strong for 25 years when Arnold Gerberding approached then-owner Weldon Wolfinger with the idea for Hardware Wholesalers Inc.
In fact, Wolfinger had been talking to neighboring hardware store owners about forming a hardware co-op of his own.
“My father and a couple of other hardware dealers in the area started talking about a co-op purchasing back in the ’40s,” said Harold Wolfinger, Weldon’s son and current owner.
“Then Arnold Gerberding, who started HWI at the time came knocking on the doors with the same concept and asking for some money to get started with. And that’s where my father got into it. Dealer No. 26,” he said.
The younger Wolfinger, 66, started in the family business in 1967. Now, as Do it Best turns 65, Wolfinger is celebrating his family business’ 90th year.
Over the years, the store has seen itself transform from an 800-sq.-ft. storefront, to a full 2,500-sq.-ft. location.
“For a small town we’ve been able to keep our head above water and hang in there,” he said.
Wolfinger Hardware serves a town of about 1,300 and relies heavily upon the local industry for much of its retail sales—what Wolfinger calls “front door.”
“We do get a large share of our front-door retail traffic from the industrial base we have here,” he said. “Our industrial base through this last 18 months has stayed. We have not lost a manufacturer, which I think is a really good deal since so many other communities have. Ours have only come back stronger.”
The hardware store also operates its own contracting business, which Wolfinger equates to “back-door sales.”
In fact, the contracting side of the business has been integral to Wolfinger from the beginning, when the store served windmills and offered roofing services. Now, that contracting business is mainly plumbing, heating and air conditioning, and mechanical.
“It’s probably about 30% to 35% of our total business,” said Wolfinger, whose son Mathew is a licensed master plumber and operates much of the store’s contracting business.
Wolfinger said the contractor side of the business also directs some of its in-store inventory.
“Because of our contracting business, we are able to inventory a whole lot more in the plumbing and heating line of fittings and accessories, which draws trade to us also. People come here because they can find those things,” he said.
But Wolfinger still caters to the local DIY community as well. After all, he’s the only game in town, with no other hardware stores, and the nearest big-box is just shy of 20 miles away. And whatever sales are made at the big boxes, Wolfinger gets a little bit of business there, too, he said.
“You have the Saturday shopper who went and bought the toilet or the bathtub and did not know he needed all the other things to go with it, so then he’s in here,” he said.
“It’s a small town, we carry all the basics. Just the old nuts and bolts hardware, I would say. You still can buy two screws from me, you don’t have to buy a package,” he said. “I had an elderly customer tell me the other day, ‘Well, if Wolfinger don’t have it, and the grocery store don’t have it, then I guess I don’t need it.’”
Wolfinger said that while he’s been entertained by other co-op businesses in the past few years, he’s never considered switching.
“I grew up in the HWI Do it Best world, and don’t know any different, I guess,” he said. “Pricing from wholesalers seems to be pretty much the same on items. It’s the service that can be provided to you and the tools that they furnish you to do your business that are important.”
Wolfinger said that Do it Best’s hands-off approach to doing business with its members has always been a huge selling point for him.
“They’ve never forced us to be anything we didn’t want to be. The programs are laid out there—if you want to take advantage of them, that’s fine. They haven’t pressured us to get into something or be bigger or do something that we didn’t want to,” he said.