Filmmakers document 95-year-old store
On any given day, a customer walking into Nichols Hardware to buy a couple of nails or a bag of mulch might be approached by a three-person film crew and asked about the experience.
The Purcellville, Va.-based store is the subject of a documentary called, “Nichols: The Last Hardware Store,” which is following a year in the life of the store, beginning in July 2008. According to Sarah Huntington, CEO of Lincoln Studios, which is producing the film, the goal is to share with audiences the sights and sounds of a business that has changed very little in the last 95 years.
“When you go into Nichols Hardware, you feel like you’ve entered a Norman Rockwell painting,” said Huntington, who lives locally and has been shopping at Nichols for about 20 years. “It’s the way the staff congregates at the counter, they way they know your name. It really is like heading back in time.”
Peter Buck, the film’s videographer, said he has interviewed about 15 customers thus far, with each sharing his or her unique experiences at Nichols both past and present. “Nichols Hardware really is an anachronism,” he said. “The amazing part is not that it’s still there, but that it operates as it did 80 or 90 years ago. They still do inventory every month by hand, and there’s a lot of inventory.”
The business was established as E.E. Nichols & Co. by Edward Enoch Nichols and partner Paul Ambrose in 1914 in the same downtown location where it sits today. These days, the store is run by Ken Nichols, Edward’s son — who at age 78 still comes to work just about every day — and Ken’s 62-year-old nephew, Ted Nichols.
The store has been expanded four times, but it still bears the touches of an earlier era. The original wood floors remain in parts of the building, and it smells of rubber and sawdust. Purchases are added on a calculator, and there’s only one computer in the store, which is used to place orders with suppliers (the store does much of its buying from Orgill, the Memphis, Tenn.-based distributor).
At the same time, Nichols caters to the modern DIY customer with a strong plumbing department, the complete line of Martin Senour paint and a large housewares offering. They also stock a lot of hard-to-find products that “you won’t see in the boxes,” according to Nichols, and he has carried on the tradition of selling furniture — including mattresses and bedroom suites — that his father started in the store’s early going.
Nichols still works at the same desk his father used — although it bears the stains of a fire that destroyed part of the business in 1940. That was the same year he started working after school and summers in the store, which then catered largely to Loudoun County’s 350 or so dairy farms.
“When the store was first built, we carried products for horses, like harnesses and bridles, and a lot of farm equipment,” Nichols said. But only one dairy farm remains in Loudoun County — most being replaced by housing developments — “so instead of selling farm equipment, we now sell lawn products and other products geared toward homeowners.”
In the mid-1990s, Nichols Hardware faced the challenge of larger hardware retailers coming into the area. A Hechinger opened in Leesburg more than a decade ago, followed by some other big-box stores in the area, prompting Nichols to open his doors on Sundays — something his family had never done before. “We did what we had to do to remain competitive,” he said.
One of the store’s main attractions is its staff, whose average tenure is in the 30-year range. A bookkeeper, 80-year-old Yvonne Lickey, has been at Nichols since 1949, another employee since 1952. “They are characters — in a wonderful way,” Huntington said. “It’s the mosaic of that store, the way they wait on customers. It’s the type of place you don’t get to see too often anymore.”
On the other hand, she is quick to point out that the store is not some dusty old museum. “It’s is busy, busy every day, every time we go there,” she said. “I think that’s the greatest part, that it’s still a thriving business.”
The future of the store, however, is in question, as Ken and Ted Nichols are the only family members still involved in the business. That’s why Huntington and Buck felt it was important to make this film, despite the fact that they have no financial backing for it thus far.
“When we tell people we’re doing a film about Nichols, the reaction we invariably get is, ‘It’s about time,’ ” Buck said. “It may be here another 100 years, or it may be closed in a year, so we felt it was important to document it and make sure the story of Nichols doesn’t get lost.”
Orgill hangs tough in Orlando
Orlando, Fla. — The first day of Orgill’s spring market produced some positive signs at the Orange County Convention Center.
“There’s a buzz out there,” said Brett Hammers, Orgill marketing director. The Memphis, Tenn.-based distributor has more than, buzz — it’s riding some positive business metrics. Orgill completed more than 100 conversions in 2008, a year that saw the company grow 4 percent in sales despite some pretty challenging market conditions. The distributor’s 2008 sales hit $1.18 billion. With some 190 conversion prospects attending last month’s market, president and CEO Ron Beal said it was a time to continue offering assortments that are fresh, tight and with the best possible pricing.
“Historically, when the economy tightens up, people do things themselves and stay closer to home, and that dynamic has always been good for hardware stores,” Beal said. “We’re in a zero-sum game, and we’re encouraging our retailers to make sure they have the right assortments at the right pricing to keep people coming in their stores.”
According to Lynn Phillips, an Orgill sales rep with 17 customers in the Central Mississippi/Western Alabama territory, some stores seem immune to the recession while others are suffering. “You can go 50 miles one way and people are doing well, and then you go 50 miles in another direction and they’re not doing so well,” he said. “Orgill knows things are tough, so they’re trying to help by providing products at a better cost so stores can make more margin.”
The green program had a larger presence at this market than the previous two spring events, as the company has added about 70 new vendors and thousands of new product skus over the past year. The demand for green products is regional in nature, with areas like California, the Northeast and Colorado doing more with the category than most of the southern territories.
Shellie Knapp, a buyer for White’s Lumber in Watertown, N.Y., said New York has become a very green-conscious state and that one of her main goals at the market was to find items that are eco-friendly and code compliant. “People are coming in and requesting these products, and there are so many state guidelines now, having these products is becoming a necessity,” she said.
Jerry Pearson, who has worked for about 25 years at Bentley Flooring and Building in Double Springs, Ala., said the store had benefited from new home building in nearby Smith Lake for about 10 years before the bottom fell out of the construction market. “Right now, we’re just trying to hang on,” he said. “The economy has always had its ups and downs, and if you make it through this rough patch, I think it will be OK.”
Lowe’s Q4 sales and earnings decline
Lowe’s posted fourth-quarter earnings of $162 million, down 60.3 percent compared to earnings of $408 million in the same quarter last year.
Comp-store sales for the quarter ended Jan. 30 declined 9.9 percent, as total sales declined 3.8 percent to $9.98 billion.
“The economic pressures on consumers intensified in the fourth quarter, resulting in a further decline in consumer confidence and dramatic reductions in consumer spending,” said Robert A. Niblock, Lowe’s chairman and CEO, in a prepared statement. “As a result, our comparable-store sales for the quarter remained weak and fell at the low end of our expectations. However, in this challenging sales environment and throughout this prolonged industry downturn, we are continuing to capture market share, which is evidence of our compelling product offering and commitment to customer service.”
For the year, earnings were $2.20 billion, down 21.9 percent from $2.81 billion in 2007. Comps for the year declined 7.2 percent. Total sales for the year held flat at $48.2 billion.
As of Jan. 30, Lowe’s operated 1,649 stores and showed year-over-year square footage growth of 7.2 percent. The company expects to open about 21 new stores in the first quarter of 2009.