Hardware, meet e-commerce

Doing business online cultivates that ‘brick-and-more’ experience.
E-commerce Foley demo
Online access in the hardware store or at home allows customers to check out all the products in inventory, like this example at Foley Hardware.

The launch, or re-launch, of your e-commerce platform is both stressful and exciting – all at once.

Hardware store owners who step into the digital arena discover a gateway to customer connections beyond their neighborhood base, and along with that wider scope, the potential for expanded revenue.

For Do it Best dealer John Merrell, owner of Foley Hardware in Larchmont, N.Y., the transition to a new commerce platform was smooth, and it brought unexpected positives.

“The biggest surprise for us regarding e-commerce was how many people visit our store online. I am always surprised we ship products all over the country,” said Merrell.

The result is, they have built relationships with customers all over the U.S.

Another surprise was that he receives questions from online shoppers regarding their Foley food mills and other Foley products, even asking him to bring back their store’s long-discontinued Foley chopper.

Merrell launched his current website about two years ago, and “with our data feed running, we were able to show all of the products available from our warehouse.”

His business enhanced its site to reflect current in-store inventory and offer same-day buy online with in-store or curbside pickup and delivery.

Positive customer feedback and continued strong sales have defined the online experience at his business, said Merrell, both during the height of the pandemic and today, as some online customers prefer to continue having product shipped to them.


This article is the second in a series of three reports on e-commerce in the hardware channel.

Not new to website commerce, Jared Littmann and his wife Marlene Niefeld, owners of K&B True Value Hardware in Annapolis, Md., have changed internet platforms a couple times in the past ten years.

“This is the first e-commerce solution we’ve had that shows the products we carry in our store, regardless of which supplier, plus products that are available from our primary supplier, True Value. From the customers’ perspective, they can click on a button to narrow their search to items that are only in our store.” Littmann said.

“We are getting repeat sales from customers, and the staff is able to manage orders with ease. The regularity of sales is increasing with both pickup and delivery orders placed,” the owner said.

This year their business became a test store for a new platform through a partnership with True Value. The main challenge, Littmann said, was working through development issues that they knowingly encountered by being a test store, rather than waiting for a finished product.

More touchpoints

Representing another hardware business with a decade of website commerce experience is Meg Taylor, communications director at Taylor’s Do it Center in Virginia Beach, Va.

While the business has been engaged in e-commerce for more than 10 years, they began to significantly ramp up their efforts about five years ago, she said, through their partnership with Do it Best Corp., offering ship-to-store and ship-to-address.

“We’ve had the benefit of working alongside the Do it Best team in this effort and leveraging their resources has helped us grow to where we are today,” said Taylor.

“Do it Best launched same day in-store pickup in 2020 and we were able to roll it out to all of our 20 locations this past year. We started by offering it at two locations only in 2020 to isolate any potential challenges, and then in summer 2021 we expanded company wide,” said Taylor.

Prior to offering same day pickup at all stores, their online orders were about 70% ship-to-store orders. “Now in-store pickup is about 50% of our orders and growing each month.”

Customer response to e-commerce, even going back 10 years, can be a new experience for an owner. Taylor said, “we were initially surprised when customers would come into the store talking about items they had seen online but were not items we had in stock.”

She said: “That’s much more commonplace today and thankfully we have a platform that enables us to provide seamless experiences in-store and online.”


E-commerce Sunshine Ace pickup
Omnichannel includes not only doing business online but the follow-thru of customer pickup, like here at Sunshine Ace Hardware in Naples, Fla.

The most positive surprises Taylor’s Do it Center has seen is the wide range of orders they’ve received, including the number of customers who have purchased big ticket items like grills through same day in-store pickup.

“It’s obvious that customers are not only comfortable with e-commerce but in some cases prefer the opportunity to research and finalize their purchase online, coupled with an easy pickup at the store,” said Taylor. “And the in-store pickup gives our team another touchpoint to suggest accessories or additional items they may need.”

Challenges, wins

Bill Kiss, head of e-commerce, digital marketing and innovation strategy at Ace Hardware in Oak Brook, Ill., said his company migrated to a new platform a few years ago because they knew they needed to upgrade just about everything. And he said it was a tough project for sure.

“It takes time, resources and investment so it’s carefully planned and plotted. The transition digitally is not as hard as it is for the change the management of our stores have had to endure. The store is the backbone of the e-comm and digital experience so learning and implementing new systems and processes is very hard, especially in a busy store environment where talent is key,” said Kiss.

Kiss sees the biggest positive being how e-comm and digital drive new customers to the brand.

“We track this and for whatever reason, digital is a way to bring new and lapsed customers to Ace. Also, we have found ways to sign up people to our critically important rewards program. Building that relationship is key for Ace,” said Kiss.

The challenges for his company have been in figuring out what gets prioritized in terms of site enhancements.

“Technology is not cheap, and we strive for greatness so there’s always a debate where to put our next improvement,” said Kiss.

“We have seen steady growth online and have quantified how it’s helping offline store sales as well. It’s a material contributor to the overall business and is something we continue to lean into as shopping behaviors by people continue to evolve,” said Kiss.

Brian Mushel and his wife, new owners of Justus True Value Home & Garden in Clarks Summit, Pa., launched what he called the “TV site” in 2019, part of the True Value e-commerce pilot program.

He termed this an easy-to-use, app-based program: “It is a web-based program that works through our Stripe account, the same way that the Stihl BOPIS program works. Stripe is a popular online merchant for credit cards.”

When someone makes an online purchase, they see their information, so “we know if it’s a loyal customer or someone who just made a one-time purchase,” said Mushel. “I’m always eager to hear feedback from our customers about anything. I always ask about someone’s experience with the online site.”

“Many customers were pleasantly surprised to learn Sunshine Ace offered the same convenient online and pickup options as their larger big box competitors.”
– Michael Wynn, president and co-owner, Sunshine Ace Hardware, Naples, Fla.

Being in touch with online customers can be eye-opening, but it’s also a learning experience in many areas, including maintaining store inventory.


Mushel has also found big ticket items popular, “along with some hard-to-find items that you may not be able to buy elsewhere from a brick-and-mortar location,” said the owner.

“Keeping a clean inventory is always a challenge. It is even harder to do now with the state of our industry, with supply and product shortages. There are times that someone makes an online purchase, and we discover that we are out of the item,” Mushel said.

The tech-based consumer

At Do it Best dealer Farm & Home Hardware in Ohio, owner Scott Jerousek said they had an online presence for many years, but nothing that engaged with their customers or effectively told their story. Covid, as well, made things difficult to perform simple curbside pickup transactions.

The owner felt like his business was spinning its wheels and needed to rebuild its e-commerce program.

“I wanted to have all of the 67,000+ SKUs available from our Do it Best co-op warehouse available to our customers. We also needed to focus on adding our Pilar brands and categories that we source outside of the co-op model,” said Jerousek.

They needed a true inventory count for all the products they are marketing online. Plus, a precise inventory feed of their in-store products that directly interacts with their operating system.

“We decided to partner with JH Specialty (MOCE) to utilize their experience and the accumulative experience of Do it Best to build our new site. We worked closely with Do it Best, JH Specialty and Epicor to develop the feeds needed to effectively market our store online. As with any BETA situation there were hiccups, but we did the work and have developed a strong process to help Do it Best dealers onboard moving forward,” said Jerousek.

Today his business is shifting focus to meeting the needs of Gen X, Xennials, Millennials and Gen Z. He has developed a marketing strategy that shifted spending from print and repositioned funds into digital marketing and customer rewards programs.

The surprising part, Jerousek said, is how well their mature customer base has evolved into a tech-based consumer. His team now encounters in-store customers who reference pre-shopping activity or specifically show associates their phones asking where “this” product is in the store.

Just like anything, e-commerce, and even digital marketing for that matter provide challenges to overcome and noticeable wins as the process is refined. “The great part of digital is in the analytics, being able to track success down to finite clicks is more powerful than the intuition of the past,” said Jerousek.

The owner also said “we need to change the discussion. It should no longer be, ‘what is it going to cost?’ but ‘what are the risks if I do not leverage technology to meet my customers where they want to do business?’”

E-commerce Aubuchon
Customer convenience: A client orders online, drives over, backs up and the item is loaded, such as here at Aubuchon, focused on curb service.

Synced, growing

William E. Aubuchon, IV, president and CEO of Westminster, Mass.-based W.E. Aubuchon Co., Inc., founded in 1908 and an Orgill dealer with 107 stores in eight states, said they have been doing e-commerce since 1999, however purposefully shifted away from traditional e-commerce to focus more on same-day e-commerce in the last 10 years.

“What we are currently focused on improving is the curbside, drive-thru experience with order updates via SMS, online check-in, updated signage, employee alerts via earpieces, and order management via handheld devices. We are even building actual drive-thrus in several test stores.”

While he said they are still trailing the reported results at the national big boxes, they are seeing steady adoption of their same-day e-commerce offerings.

“YTD, 97.7% of our revenue has been initiated in-store, with the other 2.3% being initiated online. 100% of online orders are being fulfilled by our stores and over 52% of online orders come from repeat customers with 17% of total orders using curbside,” said Aubuchon.

Loyalty members who shop their business both in-store and online spend 48% more than in-store-only members and 3.8 times more than online-only members, the CEO said.

“The strength of combining in-store and online is why same-day e-commerce is so important.”

Stew Elliott, owner of Elliott Ace Hardware, a four-store chain headquartered in Muskego, Wis., near Milwaukee, said their customers seem to be embracing their increased e-commerce presence in multiple ways.

“They enjoy knowing that we are in-stock on items which they can see online at Ace They enjoy the simplicity of processing the transaction online and having an order pulled and ready for them to pick up or even have delivered.

“They are both comfortable and confident with our online order processing ability, said Elliott.

In Florida, Michael Wynn, president, and one of six family owners of Sunshine Ace Hardware in Naples, with 11 locations in the southwest region of the state, said the pandemic underscored the importance of offering as many shopping options as possible for their customers.

Many customers, he said, were pleasantly surprised to learn Sunshine Ace offered the same convenient online and pickup options as their larger big box competitors.

“Customers are not only comfortable with e-commerce but in some cases prefer the opportunity to research and finalize their purchase online.”
– Meg Taylor, communications director, Taylor’s Do it Center, Virginia Beach, Va.

“Our e-commerce business has continued to grow exponentially as we have continued to push faster order confirmation times, reduced wait times for curbside service and improved inventory accuracy to drive more successful order fulfillment.”

At one New York brand it’s about discovering the online platform, and the similarities of in-store customer shopping habits.

“Our e-commerce customers are both new customers that ‘found us’ based on our offering of products online; and existing customers that enjoy the additional option of shopping from home when it pleases them,” said Mike Costello, CEO of Costello’s Ace Hardware, headquartered in Deer Park, N.Y.

His business is seeing two behaviors driving product demand online, and neither are unique for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.

First, e-commerce demand is highly seasonal and particularly weather sensitive. “Just like our walk-in customers, our online customers want patio furniture and lawn care products in the spring, gift and decorating items during the holidays, and snow throwers and generators when a storm is barreling down on us,” said Costello.

“Second, e-commerce demand for popular brands is strong. Again, the brands that consumers walk in and ask questions about are the same they are clicking on.”

E-commerce has its own set of operational challenges, Costello said. Most center around training staff on new processes to pick and deliver orders, and the importance of prioritizing.

“With any new process, it takes time to develop the excellence that we expect from ourselves; however, customers are responding positively, and placing repeat orders.”

Additionally said Costello, e-commerce has greatly increased the number of home deliveries they make, which means delivery vehicles, along with the messaging of the services we provide, are more visible in the community.

“Our online sales have grown by five times since 2019. Two years ago, e-commerce made up barely 1% of our total sales; it’s more than 3.5% of the total in 2021 and growing.”

E-commerce gives your hardware business more touchpoints with customers. Many owners also invested in re-launches to update their online offerings. The results: Revenue growth and wider brand exposure.

Coming Soon: In part 3 of our series on e-commerce, hardware leaders across the U.S. will share tips and ideas about going omnichannel.


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