Retailers rise to e-commerce

Extending ‘hello and a handshake’ to the online arena.
Taylor counter
At the store counter or scrolling thru a website at home, commerce online now integrates with in-store hardware operations at businesses across the country, like at Pleasants Hardware in Virginia, owned by Taylor's Do it Center.

Imagine your hardware customer – who loves to touch and feel all the keys, hammers, grinders, shovels, yard tools and everything else – staying home to buy on the internet.

Unthinkable, right? But it’s happening. In fact, it’s happened.

Pursuing a story that has accelerated throughout the pandemic and that shows no signs of receding in importance, HBSDealer turns to influencers and stakeholders — and of course, retailers — from across the hardware industry to address the intersection of hardware retailing and internet commerce.

A major issue: The impact of e-commerce on a hardware store’s top and bottom lines.

“Everyone sees that e-commerce is growing, but alongside sales growth are customers’ expectations for performance,” said Jared Littmann, who along with his wife Marlene Niefeld, own K&B True Value Hardware in Annapolis, Md.

Customers want a one-click experience with as little of their time invested as possible. “Our job is to meet their needs while figuring out how to broaden the online shopping basket,” Littmann said.

The couple bought the business in 2007 from Littmann’s in-laws, Ken and Bobbie Niefeld. Within a three-mile radius you reach two Home Depots, he said, and e-commerce represents an opportunity to grow customer counts.

“We are competitive with other brick-and-mortar businesses, but we’ve got to do better to gain local online market share,” said Littmann.

E-commerce: The Series

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

Be robust

In the village of Larchmont, N.Y., along Long Island Sound, 18 miles northeast of Midtown Manhattan, you’ll find Do it Best dealer John Merrell, owner since 1982 of Foley Hardware.

He viewed online sales simply as a necessity. “Retailers must have a robust website with e-commerce options because thats what consumers expect today.”

These services are becoming attractive for the hardware store space. Merrell’s customers, for instance, can browse products, read reviews, compare items and check the in-store inventory — all on their website.

“All of these attributes help our sales team be more productive on the phone and in the store, so we do not lose the sale to our online competitors,” Merrell said.

Net expectations

Meeting customers where they are and researching products online, is how Meg Taylor, communications director at Taylor’s Do it Center in Virginia Beach, Va., views the marketplace today.

She sees web shopping as an extension of in-person hardware operations.

“Whether your store is small or large, there are only so many things you can carry in the physical store,” she said. “E-commerce is a great way for us to significantly extend our product offering and reach additional customers,” she said.

Her family business, first opened in 1927, has 20 neighborhood stores serving coastal Virginia to North Carolina.

Doing business online has other benefits. “Making a purchase on a business’s website is also something customers and consumers in general have grown to expect in this evolving retail landscape.”

Bob Taylor, Meg’s father and former president, left the helm of Taylor’s in 2001 when he was asked to head Do it Best Corp., Taylor’s buying cooperative, headquartered in Fort Wayne, Ind. After 15 years he returned home to serve as Taylor’s chairman of the board.

Foley website
Customers today often start their search for ideas and products online; and many hardware stores, like Foley Hardware, want to be their go-to website.

Put the ‘E’ in commerce

Independent hardware stores, traditionally, are prided on the tactile, however, commerce via the internet is causing that norm to evolve.

“Everyone is online, researching, buying and skimming reviews. Covid has greatly accelerated start up sites like ours. Even grocery stores have their items in an organized, shoppable format. This puts us in front of our customers and prospective customers 24/7,” said Brian Mushel.

He’s the new owner along with his wife of Justus True Value Home & Garden in Clarks Summit, Pa., a small borough near Scranton.

At his business, customers are able to view his real time inventory and buy online or come into their store to make a purchase.

“E-commerce is essentially commerce today.” – That’s from Scott Jerousek, owner of Farm & Home Hardware.

Commerce over the internet offers his business, “a platform to expand our local and national brand quicker than we ever thought possible.”

Jerousek works with wife Cindy and a team of more than 100, serving a diverse client base in Wellington, Ohio.

“We need to meet our current and prospective customers where they do business,” said Jerousek. “Our core business is in servicing our primary market, however we have found opportunities in leveraging our distribution power with our hardware partner, Do it Best, to fulfill ship-to-address items across the country.”

Instant feedback, the ability to turn on a dime, and an infinite opportunity to grow the customer base, are the e-benefits.

There are plenty of statistics that demonstrate how often customers check a store website before they come in.

Open your digital door

Owners put the focus today on modernizing their hardware business to make sure it meets customers at their desired point of contact; but there’s another factor: Inviting them in to see all you offer.

Bill Kiss, head of e-commerce, digital marketing and innovation strategy at Ace Hardware in Oak Brook, Ill., adds perspective.

“It’s less about e-commerce,” said Kiss, “and more about that digital storefront being a front door to your local store; meaning it’s the first place consumers usually look when thinking about a store or service.”

“Retailers must have a robust website with e-commerce options because that’s what consumers expect today.”
–John Merrell, owner, Foley Hardware

It is immensely critical to get it right in terms of a fast, friendly experience to get the consumer to where they want to go and find what they need, he said.

Stew Elliott, of Elliott Ace Hardware, a four-store chain in Muskego, Wis., near Milwaukee continues that theme.

Commerce on the internet has been valuable because it allows him to present the depth and breadth of his inventory.

Elliott said “e-commerce replaces the phone call asking if we carry an item and have it in stock. And during the worst of Covid, it was extremely valuable. E-commerce and curbside pickup gave our customers a safer way to shop.”


Own the convenience

Commerce on your website is about giving customers what they want, so owners adapt and evolve.

“We focus on local same-day e-commerce where the customer can get what they want within minutes after visiting our website via in-store shopping, pickup, or curbside,” said William E. Aubuchon, IV, president and CEO of Westminster, Mass.-based W.E. Aubuchon Co., Inc., an Orgill dealer with 107 stores in eight states. They also purchase from Emery Jensen Distribution, he said.

“The key role our website plays is helping a customer understand what we have in stock, where items are physically located in our stores, such as aisle, bay, and slot, and whether or not the store is open or closed for the day,” said Aubuchon.

The CEO said when it comes to e-commerce, “the hardware store industry cannot win on delivery, however we can win on the most convenient local curbside and drive-thru experience.”

Hardware owners strive to be top of mind for their customers.

“E-commerce is simply another way to serve customers,” said Mike Costello, CEO of Costello’s Ace Hardware, headquartered in Deer Park, N.Y.

The business operates 37 Ace Hardware stores in N.Y., N.J., Md. and Va. It was founded in 1973 by Vincent Costello and owned by six of Vinnie’s 10 children.

“It’s a way that we can serve them outside of traditional business hours. Most importantly, it’s the way that some customers prefer to shop,” he said.

“Our founder saw us as problem solvers, product experts and good neighbors,” said Costello.

About offering variety, Michael Wynn, president, and one of six family owners of Sunshine Ace Hardware in Naples, with 11 locations in Southwest Fla., said some of his locations have large gift, fishing and commercial paint departments in addition to the core hardware assortments. 

“As convenience has been redefined by online shopping, we continue to support our original value proposition by providing ship-to-home, curbside or locker pickup options to meet the customers’ needs wherever it is most convenient for their busy lives.”

Wynn said e-commerce is “really about owning convenience in the mind of their customers.”

Meet your customers where they want to be – that’s how hardware today evolves to online commerce.


Coming Soon: In part 2 of ‘Retailers rise to e-commerce’ you’ll read about some of the challenges, surprises and unique customer responses that await hardware stores’ online commerce launches.