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Ace Hardware CEO: In a Retail War, ‘Differentiate or You Die’

When Ace Hardware’s top executive stepped on stage at the start of the co-op’s spring buying show, he had fierce words for fighting competitors: find weakness and “attack it relentlessly.”

President and CEO John Venhuizen spoke March 16 to kick off the Ace Hardware Spring 2017 Convention & Exhibits in Atlanta. He acknowledged competitors such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, but zeroed in on Amazon as Ace retailers’ biggest threat.

Venhuizen compared competing with the massive online retailer to warfare and encouraged Ace store owners to identify areas where they can beat Amazon. They can’t assume old strategies will win new wars, he says.

Amazon offers a massive array of products, is conveniently as accessible as customers’ cellphones and provides prompt delivery, he says.

However, Ace stores can offer premium products, convenient store locations and in-person service experiences that online stores cannot, Venhuizen says.

Quality, convenience and service are areas Ace stores have to beat Amazon on, he says. “These are the three battles we have to win,” he told Ace retailers. ““You need to differentiate or you die.”

He used grills as an example of how Ace stores can distinguish themselves.

Ace has grabbed market share and increased same-store sales by selling top brands, offering free assembly and becoming destinations for grilling events. In doing so, Ace retailers have set themselves apart in ways Amazon can’t.

“I’ve been on Amazon a lot and never smelled a pork loin,” Venhuizen says.

Ace is testing other strategies for outdoing Amazon, including video customer service phone calls, taking orders by text message and curbside product pickup.

Ace, which now has 5,000 store locations worldwide, has thousands of member entrepreneurs who test their own ideas and pilot some of Ace corporate’s, as well.

As a result, Ace can see on a small scale whether new strategies or products might succeed on large scale, Venhuizen told Hardware Retailing in an interview.

“We’ve got winnable weapons,” Venhuizen says. “Let our minds be open to change while our feet are planted on the bedrock of this company.”


Darryl Morman, manager of Hill’s Ace Hardware and Lumber Center in Loganville, Georgia, thought Venhuizen’s message offered motivation for reassessing how stores are doing business.

“I think it gives everyone a challenge,” he says. “Are we doing old things looking for new results?”

On the Show Floor

Morman was among many Ace retailers and store employees who were looking for unique products and new ideas for improving their businesses at the Ace convention.


Fred Relyea from Friedman’s Home Improvement in California has been keeping his eye on smart home technologies and looking for fresh innovations to bring back to his business.

“I’m always looking for buys,” he says. “What can I find here that’s a hot buy that can make our customers excited about the promotions we have?”

Raul De La Torre with IGA Grocery & Ace Hardware in San Luis, Arizona, was on a similar mission.

“I’m hopeful to get really good deals so we can pass those deals on to customers,” De La Torre says. “That’s the name of the game.”

About Kate Klein

Kate is profiles editor for Hardware Retailing magazine. She reports on news and industry events and writes about retailers' unique contributions to the independent home improvement sector. She graduated from Cedarville University in her home state of Ohio, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English and minored in creative writing. She loves being an aunt, teaching writing to kids, running, reading, farm living and, as Walt Whitman says, traveling the open road, “healthy, free, the world before me.”

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