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‘Independents’ Day’: Smaller Stores Can Stand Up to Their Behemoth Rivals

“City hardware store survives despite bigger retail options.” So ran the headline last November in the local newspaper for Pottsville, Pa. (population 14,229). The story focused on the seemingly unlikely survival of Pottsville’s Centre Street Hardware, which had managed to keep its doors open since 1992 despite the rise of price-busting big-box hardware stores.

Jason Brown, a crack mechanic who manages the family business, told the newspaper its success owes to diversification. “We sell multiple things, such as bagged coal and wood pellets, all along with the regular hardware retail,” he said. “The small engine repair and service work we do, that’s our biggest thing, really.”

Walk into Roswell Hardware Co., in Roswell, Ga., and the story is much the same. It happens to be an exclusive dealer of a best-in-class barbecue grill called the Big Green Egg. It is a hot item, no pun intended, and about half the store is filled with BBQ-related stuff. By the way, good luck finding Big Green Egg in the big-box stores.

The notion of connecting with customers comes up so often in retail these days that it might seem like a meaningless cliché. But as the examples above illustrate, when a business can build strong relationships with local consumers, it can do what some consider nearly impossible—compete with the biggie chains. Indeed, the cavernous big-box stores might even be at a disadvantage in this regard. In a world of commoditized and homogenized retail, there is undeniable appeal to walking into your corner hardware store and chatting with people who know your name.

But you cannot just look the part. The key is to actually elevate service in ways that are immediately recognizable to your shoppers. When they ask for help finding an item, walk them to the exact spot. Once there, engage with them by asking about the project they are working on. Find out if they need other help—and make sure you know enough to actually help them. Aside from service, organize your store so that it works for shoppers, not against them. Remove clutter, set store shelves so that categories are easy to navigate, and give those who want to be left alone lots of easy-to-read, way-finding signage.

But having clean, bright and organized stores is just cost of entry. More important is to have a differentiating strategy along the lines of the examples above. Find your own Big Green Egg. Maybe it is a top-tier leaf-blower or weed-trimmer that is unavailable in the big boxes but the clear favorite of professional landscapers. Maybe you offer the quickest, best and most affordable equipment repair services in town. And don’t be afraid to steal a few pages from the big boys: Hold classes and other events that drive traffic and simultaneously educate people about your store. Such outreach helps forge even closer ties to the community, which is precisely your goal.

For local independents, find your unique story, history or special service and celebrate it. Let your store symbolize all that is good about one of America’s most cherished values: independence.

About Joseph Bona

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