Walking the aisles
A first-time visitor to Fuller’s Home & Hardware might need a few minutes to take it all in. But then, he might spend the better part of an afternoon exploring the offerings.
The family owned and operated Ace dealer in Hinsdale, Ill., has carved a memorable niche in this Chicago suburb with a two-story approach to home improvement. On the ground floor is the classic hardware store. Upstairs is the upscale “The Second Floor,” described as “the hardware store for cooks and more.” In his online note to customers, owner Doug Fuller describes the upstairs wares as “the most beautiful tableware gifts and kitchen goods.” A demonstration kitchen is part of the attraction.
The Fuller family took over the building from a more conventional hardware store in 2003. “We revamped the whole store — a nine-month process that completely changed the inside,” said Luke Fuller Goss.
Adding to the adventure, the Fullers converted an adjacent gas station into their extremely kid-friendly Dips and Dogs restaurant.
“Fuller’s has created a unique business with a lot of housewares and unique offerings,” said John Surane, Ace’s VP merchandising. “It’s anything but cookie cutter.”
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Anatomy of a product rollout
A five-year plan to expand from 4% to 8% of the overall paint market in the United States is in the very early innings. Big boxes alone have 65% of the DIY paint market, according to Ace’s tally. “We want to put Ace on the map for the driving decision,” said Janet Davidson, marketing supervisor for Ace paint. “We think we have a good story to tell.”
A lot is riding on Ace’s latest paint name brand, Clark+Kensington, as the co-op seeks to brush its way into relevance in the competitive paint category. That’s why a lot went into its rollout.
“We really did build this from the ground up,” said Jack Wickham, VP manufacturing, Ace Paint. “We put a lot of RD into the product.”
Here are some of the key decision points that went into the rollout of Clark+Kensington:
• Listening to the consumer
Paint and primer in one, regardless of anyone’s opinion about the importance of a separate primer, was clearly seen as a product in demand by the consumer. “When researching this, we learned that people go to the paint store and they ask for paint and primer in one,” Davidson said. “The selling proposition is very simple, and very straightforward.”
• The celebrity question
Nike has Michael Jordan. Jell-O had Bill Cosby. Should Ace’s new paint product have a celebrity endorser? Rachael Ray’s name came up in brainstorming discussions. Ace executives thought about it, but never very seriously.
• Picking a name
Before settling on Clark+Kensington as a brand, Royal Advantage was considered, which would have linked the new product to the current workhorse in most Ace paint departments. The team decided on a clean break for a breakthrough product. Clark+Kensington combines the Clark Street of an early Ace store with the Kensington Court address of the current Ace headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill.
• Ace brand vs. national brand
One of the most emotional decisions about Clark+Kensington dealt with the branding of the packaging. Should “Ace” be promoted on the can, or should Clark+Kensington stand on its own? After heavy consideration, Ace went with the latter.
• Meet the product
Typically, product introductions take place at dealer conventions. But in the case of Clark+Kensington, Ace executives organized much more intimate gatherings with dealers on a regional basis. The product was promoted at 23 specially organized paint expos and 100 training sessions around the country in 2011.
• Make it work
Headquarters supported the program by offering market research to dealers, color display kits to stores and also programs that allowed dealers to send back older paint.
The results: Ace said the product is the most successful rollout ever.
By Dec. 3, 2011, the paint was on the shelves at 2,700 stores — above its internal goal of 2,500. Today, the penetration is close to 3,000, said John Surane, Ace VP merchandising.
The next step is national advertising, which kicks off Feb. 29, during an episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on CBS. A free paint giveaway program is also coming to stores in early March.
“You name the medium and we’re going to be there with the Clark+Kensington paint lauch,” Surane said.
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For Ace, retail is increasingly local
Even before Ace Hardware Corp. reported high single-digit sales increases for the quarter and the year — and even during a lingering housing downturn — CEO Ray Griffith told dealers that he liked the position in which Ace finds itself.
“Ongoing uncertainly keeps consumers cautious about spending, but many of you are doing well,” he told the members gathered in Denver for the co-op’s market last year.
In Orlando, Fla., at the Oak Brook, Ill.-based co-op’s Spring Convention, Griffith had an even better message. Performance in 2011 was ahead of 2010 and ahead of plan.
The trio of (relatively) new marketing and merchandising talent for Ace — John Surane (March 2009), Ken Goodgame (August 2010) and Jeff Gooding (came in June 2010) paint a picture of a co-op enjoying new tools for prosperity — brands such as Craftsman and the new paint-and-primer in one Clark+ Kensington, among them. A difficult transition to SAP supply chain management system is behind them. Said Goodgame: “We are now running it, and we intend to take advantage of it.”
Both Surane and Goodgame have Home Depot experience on their resume, and all three understand that part of their job is to give Ace retailers the support they need to thrive even in the shadow of the national chains. A shift to fully integrated line reviews and a tightening of e-commerce identity standards for retailer websites are geared to product long-term benefits for the co-op.
One concept they have in their favor — and an idea they intend to fuel with marketing and programs — is the association of Ace with the local entrepreneur.
“Our competitive positioning around the big boxes and everybody else, clearly the biggest competitive advantage for the Ace Hardware store, is that it’s locally owned and operated. It’s part of the community,” Surane said. “Being locally owned is a powerful competitive advantage by its stores — one that the other guy can’t copy.”
While eco-friendly and made in the USA remain trends to watch, going local is the one that Ace is most eager to promote. “I don’t know if there is anything more American than the local hardware store, and the entrepreneur that runs that store,” Surane said.
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