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How Cole Hardware Drives Engagement With Email Marketing

Sifting through an email inbox can be daunting. Consumers are bombarded with thousands of messages, from promotions to urgent deals and breaking news. However, when a company can draw a customer in with a creative subject line and consistent information, it can mean the difference between a delete and a loyal customer. That’s what Cole Hardware, a family-owned operation with five stores in the San Francisco area, has worked on perfecting since it began its email marketing strategy years ago. 

cole hardware digital marketing
Shanead Mueller is the marketing manager for Cole Hardware

For nearly a decade, Shanead Mueller, marketing manager for Cole Hardware, has been finding ways to improve the company’s online relationship with customers by strengthening brand awareness and encouraging people to shop at the stores. Today, the company has an email list of 30,000, with a staggering 50% open rate. 

“My main goal with email marketing is to remind our customers that we are here and to keep us top of mind when they make purchasing decisions,” Mueller says. “The best way to do that is to have your email provide value, whether it be entertaining, informative or provide a discount. Our goal is to make emails the customer wants to open and engage with instead of archiving or trashing them without opening.” 

Evolving From Print to Digital
When Mueller joined Cole Hardware in 2014, the company had already been utilizing email marketing, but the main focus was still on their print circular and its accompanying physical newsletter that was mailed to customers’ homes. 

“We originally sent a physical newsletter that included our deals and several informative articles spanning 10 to 12 pages,” Mueller says. “It was all wonderful content and beautifully written, so we repurposed it for our emailed newsletters.” 

Eventually, the company decided to scale back on print marketing due to the added costs and now they pour that energy into their emails and social media presence. 

“We’ve kept the spirit of our former newsletter but I am a graphic designer, so I focus on the look of the content and try to keep it short, sweet and informative,” Mueller says. 

One of the shifts the team had to make was requesting email addresses rather than home addresses from customers at the register, Mueller explains. 

“We have a rewards program that requires a customer’s email address to join,” she says. “We also give our cashiers a 50 cent bonus for every accurate email address they collect. There are also forms on our website to sign up for emails, and we get a handful that way, too.” 

Digital Connections
To communicate with customers across five stores requires consistent communication and a thorough plan of action. In addition to their comprehensive email marketing strategy, Mueller works in tandem with Noelle Nicks, the visual merchandising manager at Cole Hardware, who manages the social media for all five stores. Together, they have found a process to collaborate on a content calendar and make sure they are keeping up with their customers. 

“We send one or two emails a week and more in December,” Mueller says. “Noelle and I use a shared Google Calendar to organize all of our content. We also use the time of year to get ideas for what we’ll focus on, whether it’s a holiday, the weather, new product releases, trends and seasonal tasks around the home. We also use ‘National Days’ to get inspiration, and that content is popular on social media as well.” 

cole hardware digital marketing
Noelle Nicks (left) and Shanead Mueller team up to align digital marketing and in-store merchandising at Cole Hardware.

Over the years, Mueller and Nicks have experimented with various strategies to see what engages with customers the most online, from testing out the days of the week to the times an email is sent. However, the difference with these changes was minimal. 

“We have found that 36% of people on our email list are our engaged customers,” Mueller says. “They reliably read our emails, and for the industry, that number is great. When I go to schedule an email, I think about when a customer will be receiving it. Maybe it’s over coffee on a weekend morning, a lunch break during the work week or relaxing after dinner.” 

What strengthens the overall marketing strategy at Cole Hardware is making it consistent across all mediums, Mueller says. 

“I design all of our digital assets as well as our print materials, including a postcard announcing sales, posters and signage,” she says. “I strive to have the marketing match the experience in the store. That’s one of the nice things about having creative control over all of it. The email matches the store sign or the postcard. If we are featuring a new product in an email, we want it to also be on an endcap when the customer walks into the store. Email is important, but it’s just one part of a whole strategy.” 

Cole Hardware also utilizes the content from its email marketing to share with followers on Facebook and Instagram, Nicks says. 

“Cole Hardware is not just a retailer. We’re a part of the community, so we want our social media to be personal and local,” Nicks says. “Whether it’s our book drive, toy drive or our Coins for the Community Program, our customers are not only shopping with us, but making positive change in our community. We use social media to highlight what makes us unique, including our charming Cole Hardware crew. We know people are busy and bombarded with digital interaction, so we act as if we’re texting a friend, sending out quick quips about upcoming items we think they’ll be interested in.” 

Just as they try to analyze what works best with email marketing, Nicks and Mueller also tried to dig into what was most well received on social media. 

“We looked at the metrics on our Instagram to see what our top posts were and they were all over the map,” Nicks says. “Some were pictures of our owners, employees in the store, photos of pumpkins in the fall. We take that to mean we should continue to deliver a little bit of everything.” 

Making Digital Marketing Fun
For those who have been struggling with digital marketing, Mueller says it’s important to focus on the customer.

“I think of marketing as a conversation, similar to the one you would have with a customer in person,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to provide helpful knowledge, make the customer smile and remind them you are there. If you think about the majority of marketing that you are exposed to throughout your day, from targeted ads, or ‘you left this item in your cart’ emails, it can all start to make you feel like a commodity. What I do, and others can, is make customers feel like a part of your community instead.” 

Mueller recognizes that depending on the size of a business and the budget for marketing or social media, it’s important to find what strategy works best for you. 

“It can be hard to quantify and put money toward marketing when you don’t see automatic results,” Mueller says. “However, the perception, branding and positive interaction with your customer can pay off in the long run.” 

If having a dedicated marketing team member isn’t within your budget, Mueller suggests giving the opportunity to help develop content for newsletters or social media to the staff who are on the salesfloor, engaging with customers. 

“The goal for us is to put a smile on our customers’ faces,” Mueller says. “We do whatever we can to make it fun for us and then hope that translates. Marketing doesn’t have to be perfect. Just get started, establish the voice of your brand and connect with your customers online like you would on the salesfloor.” 

About Renee Changnon

Renee Changnon is the retail outreach coordinator for NRHA. She meets with retailers in their stores and at industry events and introduces them to the services NRHA provides. Renee previously worked as a member of the NRHA communications team. She earned a degree in visual journalism from Illinois State University, where she served as the features editor for the school newspaper. After college, she implemented marketing and promotions initiatives at Jimmy John’s franchise locations across the country. She enjoys exploring books with her book club, Netflix marathons and hosting goat yoga at her apartment complex. Renee Changnon 317-275-9442 rchangnon@nrha.org

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