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08/28/2022

The controlled chaos called hardware

No two days are alike in hardware – two leaders share a ‘day in the life’ at their businesses.
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Karla Robson Slavens
Karla Robson, “Chaos Coordinator” and manager at Slavens True Value hardware.

Do we exist in a life of happy, crazy, chaotic adventure called the hardware business?

Yes, yes, and yes, many would say. Here are two hardware management voices ready to discuss candidly, in a deep, deep dive.

Karla Robson is the manager of Slavens True Value in Cortez, Colorado. Nova Slavens, the wife of their co-owner is the current owner, as both Les and Gary Slavens, brothers, are deceased.

Robson is an employee of Slavens for 36 years.

“We are a third generation True Value hardware store. We sell all the hardware basics, and lumber, and have a rental department. We have been ‘Slavens’ since 1953, True Value since 1969,” she said.

“We are in a town of about 8,700, and a county of 26,000. We are an hour from a Home Depot, an hour and half from Lowe’s. Being in the Southwest corner of Colorado, we serve cowboys and American Indians alike. Native folks come 100 miles or more to town for their groceries and hardware,” she said.

“What do we think of as ‘controlled chaos’ in hardware?!” Robson stated, then answered:

“I have a sign outside my office that says, ‘Chaos Coordinator.’ I feel confident that if I were to leave this job my resume would include this title.”

The hardware manager thinks they have always worked in an environment of controlled chaos, but – in the last few years it has really gone to a new level.

“We got such an influx of customers during Covid; and they seem to continue to shop. They have found the ‘perfect’ project or item online ­– and now expect the rest of us to know what it is, and have it in stock,” said Robson.

The customer of today is watching DIY videos online, she said, and they know they can do this stuff – if only they can find this one ingredient.

“Probably once a week I use Google to identify an item I’ve never heard of.”

Besides the customer challenges, the employee challenges are completely overwhelming, she said. “No one wants to work!”

Mystery Bob calling again

“We can find retired folks who are bored and want part time. These folks are great. They know how to do many home projects. They are not great when it comes to carry out. Let’s face it, my 79-year-old plumbing guy does not need to be packing out a water heater or even a toilet for that matter. But he is a great resource to customers; he knows so much,” said Robson.

The other group they can find who want to work is the under 20 age group, she pointed out. “They are great with the computer, great at carry out. They have no knowledge about anything, unless you can get a farm kid who has fixed a few things in their short lives.”

These folks do not talk on the phone, the manager said, “thus do not know how to ask questions, take a message, or learn about the caller’s question.”

Robson said: “I can’t tell you how many of them have told me ‘Bob’ called. Well, when did he call? Bob who? What did he need? Do I need to return this ‘Mystery Bob’s’ call?”

They don’t know how to make change when a customer pays in cash, she noted. The computer is easy. The money is tough.

“They don’t know what department to transfer a call to, because they lack product knowledge; so they end up focusing on one employee and transferring every call, all day, to that one person.”

Her business pays well for Colorado, she said, and still, she cannot find any 25-45-year-olds who want a job.

“And we cannot keep the kids we have working here because they have been told they must go to college; ‘hardware is not a career.’ Why would anyone say that to a kid?”

Same chaos, different day

No two days are alike, but the Slavens’ manager describes a ‘day in the life’ at her hardware store.

“In a nutshell – a day in my life is trying to source products, and ordering said products. I am no longer as concerned with price as years ago. Now it’s just, ‘does someone have it?’ Order all they have – it might be our last chance.”

Robson said: “We talk about customers hording stuff; we as hardware stores are doing the same. Just yesterday we were talking about a back order of a spring item: Should we cancel the item or just let it come? It might be our only chance, and next spring they might not have any.”

In her “typical day” if there is such a thing, Robson comes in and does some daily paperwork; looks at the sales numbers and customer count from the previous day; takes time-off requests from employees; and hopes for applications from prospective employees – she usually doesn’t get any.

She spends her time seeing who is sick, or off, and tries to work the schedule around those folks, not overworking the few wonderful flexible folks she has.

Then the busy manager runs views, looking for outs, and sourcing their three main vendors: True Value, Orgill and Blish-Mize.

“Also, I can source True Value product from another store who orders from another True Value retail distribution center. He brings stuff in for me, and we drive an hour to get it. We don’t do that every week, about every other week or so,” said Robson.

“It’s great to have several sources; and it’s a huge pain to have several sources,” she said, indicating that this makes it difficult to train new employees to look in these various places to find items each time someone asks for something they don’t have.

Employees become quickly overwhelmed, she pointed out.

“I spend a huge amount of time just answering employee questions about where to look to source product and how to tell if said product is on order, and when will it come, and from where.”

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Slavens group photo
Slavens group photo.

The times they are a-changin’

Changes going on today drive the chaotic environment at a hardware business.

“We were taught to approach customers, to hand the product to the customer, and talk to the customer about the product while they hold it,” she said.

In today’s environment you don’t know if the customer wants you close to them, she said, or whether they will even take the product from your hand. “How they think the product got to the shelf, I do not know!”

She doesn’t even know whether you should stand close enough to have a conversation about the products.

If you get past those challenges, she said, then you still have kids not knowing how to talk on the phone. She has to tell the employee to call the Ace store for a customer and see if they have said product. But the employee hasn’t used a phone to make a call, only to text.

“It’s faster to do it yourself, and that does not teach the employee to perform this task, but it does keep you from knocking your head against the wall in frustration.”

In slow times in the old days, said Robson, “we cleaned the windows, changed light bulbs, stocked product and faced product. The kids now want to be on their phones in slow times. They all come in with ear buds and want their own music or entertainment. They feel the need to be constantly entertained by something. Their lives don’t include quiet time.”

Stories

There are plenty of interesting example of hardware chaos all owners and managers live with.

The Slavens manager received an application from a young person who listed special skills as “management,” then said the reason for leaving the one and only job he had was because he was a manager, and no one listened to his instruction.

Robson said she had, “a girl who listed her skills as channel surfing from her couch.”

Also, “we got a round patio table in, sealed box, from our vendor with no legs. My assembler said come look at my new Frisbee. It’s a 48-inch metal table.”

She said her store has a sign, written in green neon rope light, that got old and faded and she asked their college kid to re-do it. He had to trace the old sign because he does not know how to write in cursive. The ‘A’ looks backward to anyone who can write in cursive. “There are fewer and fewer of us,” Robson said.

Getting thru

The hardware manager offered some tips to help get through the daily chaos of hardware operations.

“Patience, Patience, Patience. I don’t think the young folks are incapable. I think they have not been taught politeness, and simply saying ‘thank you’ and ‘please,’ and asking how to help someone,” she said.

They have not been taught how to approach a customer, said Robson. “They have not approached anyone – ever – they text everything. They are so used to living with constant entertainment, they don’t understand to offer help, offer suggestions, and don’t be too pushy.”

They know they can go down the street and get another job – everyone’s hiring, she said. We are raising the generation who will take over for us, we need them to succeed.

We all need help with one thing or another, she said, hardware is a team sport!

“If you can afford to, hire fewer, at a higher wage. Hopefully they will stay with you, and if at all possible, let folks buy in.”

In Cincinnati

Tim Cable is the president of Cincinnati Ace, a four-store chain in the greater Cincinnati area. Their markets range from suburban to rural and affluent to modest income levels. Their oldest store was founded in the late 70s; the newest store is 12 years old.  

He described ‘controlled chaos’ in hardware.

“Controlled chaos certainly seems to be an oxymoron. Not only must we deal with the pandemic issues of labor shortages and supply chain issues, but we have many new team members that require training in almost every aspect of the business. That includes what is expected of them regarding excellent customer service, job responsibilities and product knowledge.”

He said that most customers are understanding of the situation retail faces, but a very small percentage have taken their anger and impatience out on the team. They focus on the other 99.9%.

Cable painted a picture of what a ‘day in the life’ at his store looks like.

“Our first concern every morning is the health of our team. From there, we review the day before and what tasks lie ahead. Obviously, customers are the first task,” he said.

The next task is to review all online orders, which have increased each month since the pandemic started. Then their replenishment order might arrive, or any number of drop ship orders.

Somehow, he said, “we fit in price changes, training, cleaning, looking at outs for replacement items and all the pesky paperwork that must be completed. We also must process the multitude of price changes that come through. Lastly, we try to stay one step and one season ahead. So, we’re already planning on the fall and Christmas seasons.”

Changes today play a factor in the business.

Certainly, the supply chain is driving business right now, he said. “We spend twice the time we did pre-pandemic sourcing merchandise from vendors, controlling backorders and looking for like item substitutes.”

The shortage in labor is driving costs up not only for our labor, he noted, but for the manufacturers, warehouse help and truck drivers.

“Obviously, this is creating a plethora of price changes daily which is being passed on to consumers. We have also taken increases for services such as trash removal, phone, internet, accounting, electric and even insurance.”

They have become aggressive in shopping these services from other vendors but that takes time out of their day when they should be focusing on customers’ needs.

He shared some thoughts on how best to get through the daily chaos at a hardware operation.

“At the beginning of the pandemic there was no control over what was happening in the stores. Simply put, there was little to no infrastructure or plan in place to deal with a 40% increase in sales with hits to the supply chain,” he said.

“We also had to deal with a shortage of labor. We had several of our staff out due to illness or caring for someone who was ill.”

Over the past two years, he said, with the help of Ace Corp, they have programs in place to help.

“We can now easily place items on back order and track them; look at substitute items; and use other inventory management tools.” They are signed on with Indeed to help with labor shortages.

“My advice is to accept what is happening as the new normal, develop a plan on how to deal with it, then follow your plan. Control what you can control, fix what you can, and move away from what you cannot.”

Cable said: “Hardware retail, as well as many businesses, have certainly become chaotic, however we feel blessed to have our health, family, friends, business partners and to be in a thriving business. It certainly outweighs anything thrown at us.”