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Chris Kempa

True Value CEO Chris Kempa Talks 2022 Fall Reunion

The True Value 2022 Fall Reunion will take place Sept. 15-18 in Denver, Colorado, at the Colorado Convention Center, providing independent retailers with the chance to see new products and interact face-to-face with associates and vendors. Hardware Retailing spoke with True Value CEO Chris Kempa, who shared highlights of the upcoming 2022 Fall Reunion and insights into True Value’s areas of focus moving forward.

Hardware Retailing (HR): What are you most excited about in regards to the 2022 Fall Reunion?

Chris Kempa (CK): We have been centered on making sure that anything our customers depend on us for, that we do it as best as possible. A big part of being reliable is having the best product assortments. True Value has historically been known for its product assortment, and we are focused on making sure we’re competitive in that area. We started a Product Council, which is made up of retailers, members of my team and a few very specific, talented individuals, to better engage with customers. We are working more closely with our salespeople than we ever have before to collect feedback and elevate our offerings. Reunion is a great place to launch these product assortments, and I am very excited to share them with our customers. We will have an unbelievable amount of retooled assortments, exclusive products and exciting product demos. I’m a merchant at heart, so I’ve been pretty close to this process, and I am really proud of the work we’ve done.

I am also excited about being back in person. We’ll continue with virtual options for our customers who find that avenue easier, but we are fully committed to returning to two in-person Reunions a year. The reality is that our customers and teams really enjoy getting together in person, and I love it as well; there’s no better way to interact with as many customers as I can in such a short amount of time.

The other area we have worked really hard on is getting as many prospects to Reunion as we can. For the 2022 Fall Reunion, we have more prospects coming than ever before. A lot of people have expressed interest in wanting to come out and see what we’ve changed, what we’re all about and how we can help them. It’s been really good to see interest from customers who want to check us out.

I’m also looking forward to giving an update on our business at the general session, where I’ll share about customer acquisition, growth and the financial health of the company.

Lastly, our customers tell us all the time that they enjoy spending time together. They like it when we bring in somebody to put on a show for them, so we asked Darius Rucker to join us and perform at Reunion. His music is a nice mix of country and older music, which is a combination our customers enjoy. We have all dealt with a lot in the last two years, but exciting things are happening at our 2022 Fall Reunion; I’m looking forward to it, and we’re ready to go.

HR: Tell us about the exclusive products that will be available at Reunion.

CK: We’ve recently started to think differently, looking not just at a product level, but the job a customer wants to do. When you start to think about fixing a leaky faucet or maintaining a lawn, you take a different perspective on everything a customer needs and how to get them the best mix of products and solutions at the best value. This viewpoint has really influenced our product assortment moving forward and what will be seen at Reunion.

There will be over 800 linear feet of planograms featuring thousands of products. We’ve created a destination DeWalt signature assortment, which will show our renewed and significant partnership with DeWalt. We have a lot of customers who want to differentiate themselves in their markets and having access to DeWalt’s complete assortments helps them achieve that goal.

Weber has historically been a great partner to True Value, so we asked them to do an exclusive slate blue kettle grill, which will be launched at Reunion. Our customers value this type of opportunity, and it gives them the ability to distinguish themselves in their market.

Another point of concentration for us revolves around supporting local hardware stores to help their local communities. We have been focusing on home health and aging-in-place, which are underserved markets with many opportunities. As people retrofit their homes to solve these issues, a hardware store is the ideal place to provide advice, support and products in those realms. We have an exclusive channel with a supplier called Carex who has been helping us think about that space and how we can assist our retailers with customer segments in their markets looking for those solutions.

We have also partnered with the Our Feathered Friends line of high-quality bird food. We have numerous exclusives with them and a brand-new suet program.

Additionally, our paint factory is a great advantage for us because we have the ability to formulate and develop products and utilize our customers’ input. We are launching a new line of paint called LimitLess, a premium paint that’s part of our EasyCare® lineup. Compared to the highest quality, most expensive can of paint that exists in the market, we believe LimitLess is not only as good, but better, and it’s two-thirds the price. Paint is getting costly, and we wanted to put something in the marketplace that is comparable to the highest quality paint out there but at a better value.

We also see a big opportunity with smart home products and small kitchen appliances, so we’ve partnered with GE Lighting and Cync Smart Home. We have exclusive GE Lighting in our channel now, and they will continue to bring a fully integrated platform. Home automation includes favorable average ticket products, and technology continues to upgrade and change, so it’s a great line of business.

Our seasonal departments have been completely refreshed, particularly our Green Thumb brand. When we talk to customers, they recognize it as a premium national branded product and often don’t realize it’s our exclusive brand. We have been working to help people understand that these are exclusive products for our customers.

We are also launching a DIY luxury vinyl plank product at Reunion. It’s the Allure brand from Halstead. We launched it quietly, and it has really taken off, so we are showcasing it at our event.

HR: What product demos can attendees take part in at the Reunion?

CK: As always, we love to do our Grill ’N Chill event, which features a lot of our suppliers. We are also going to introduce a full line of all-terrain vehicles and go-karts, which is a category that came up through our Product Council, to see if these products resonate with our customers. Coleman Powersports will be there with the products, and our customers will have the chance to try them out.

We’ve also created a new product arena. We will have 25 brand new vendors made up of inventors and startups who will be showing off their products and giving demos. For many of these products, Reunion will be the first time they will be available for sale at brick-and-mortar operations. We’re trying to push the envelope around new and innovative offerings and see which of those may resonate. Our customers want us to bring products to their attention that they are not aware of, and the Product Council came up with this solution to address this point. I’m really excited about this area, and I plan to spend quality time there. We’re supporting independent retailers as well as entrepreneurs, because at our core, supporting independent and small businesses is what we believe in and do.

HR: Tell us about your vendor relationships and what they will bring to retailers at this Reunion.

CK: Our Reunions tend to be pretty big productions, and we invite a lot of vendors because our customers value that. The level of vendor support has been incredible; our primary suppliers, best supporters and all the key brands our customers depend on are excited about what we’ve been doing on the assortment side to better position them with retailers.

After I joined True Value, we took a step back early on and began focusing on our suppliers as partners. We don’t exist without them, so we are working together and exploring what we want to focus on, how we support each other and how we help retailers.

They have good insights, so leveraging their knowledge and working with them to improve the costs passed to the customer has given us an advantage.

HR: Tell us why True Value is investing in a live event. What benefits does a live event bring to retailers?

CK: We are investing in a live event because our customers really like to touch and feel the products available, and that is not something you can replicate on a virtual platform. We will always have a virtual option because we have customers who cannot attend Reunion in person, but our bias is toward the live event where they will have the benefit of seeing the product in person.

Another reason is creating that sense of family and community. I was awestruck at Reunions I attended; the number of customers who came up and said “thank you” was amazing. We appreciate everything they have had to cope with, and to know they are aware of how much we care and are working to serve them is encouraging. We’ve been receiving more feedback, and I expect to hear more at our upcoming Reunion, on our ability to serve them and what we’ve done to make sure we’ve got products available.

HR: What are the main points of continued strategic focus for the company moving forward?

CK: Job No. 1 is providing the best-in-class assortments and focusing on product availability. Job No. 2 is all about the end-to-end supply chain and reducing waste and nonvalue-added costs, especially with inflation and labor costs. Because we’re in a better position and are managing the business better than we ever have, we don’t have to and won’t pass on all of the added costs. We have been working together to create an efficient end-to-end supply chain for our customers.

The next focus area includes anything we can do to help our customers grow and improve profitability, including anything that drives traffic, increases average tickets or helps with a mix of products. The list goes on, but these elements are the foundation of what we will continue to work on. I’ve made some changes to the executive team to prepare us, and more changes will be unveiled as we move forward. We will work with our customers to identify where they need the most help, and if a problem and solution resonates with half or more of our customers, we will turn our focus there. We’ve got a lot of great options, but we’re going to give them a thorough analysis to make sure they are benefiting our customers as they should.

The last part of the strategy revolves around what we can do to work together. I often say to my team, “If we owned all of the retail stores, what would we do?” A lot of times the answer mentions standardization. But the biggest advantage, and the reason our business and our customers thrive, is because they’re independent and know their local markets; I would never want to disrupt that. We will do our part to earn their business while doing everything we can that we mutually agree is beneficial for them, and that includes getting everybody to have more of the same assortments where it makes sense. They’ll have flexibility; we’re not going to force them. Some of our competitors force, but we’re going to help our customers understand that the more we all work on this together, the better it is for everyone. In a distribution business, having the highest velocity on the most amount of items makes all this work better for everybody. We refer to this strategy as assortment penetration, and it is all about getting our customers to have the highest amount of penetration, which means carrying the most amount of the same items that are relevant to them.

HR: Has 2022 met your expectations for growth as a company and the goals you set for the year in regards to financial goals, store openings and walking retailers through pain points of labor and the supply chain?

CK: I am very pleased with where we sit considering the challenges we have faced and those we will face. As I reflect on 2021 and 2022, our strategies are working. We are in line with our goals. We have weathered a softer spring season, and as the economy begins to cool, so will customer traffic. We are not wavering from our investments and our strategies. I am proud of our team’s ability to continue to acquire and grow our business and resonate with customers in the marketplace. We have been able to move customers from our competitors, which is always an indication there are people who are interested in what we’re doing and what we do well, which are good indicators to me.

HR: Looking toward 2023, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for retailers? How is True Value planning to help retailers in those areas?

CK: I think hiring and the cost of labor have become very evident problems. Generally speaking, our strategies, which are centered on taking nonvalue-added costs out, help everybody. As does our focus on helping our customers operate their stores more profitably and grow faster.

I think the pandemic showed retailers the kinds of opportunities that exist, but as the environment changes, finding ways to continue resonating will be important. I think our investment in assortments and our focus on how to run leaner and have more choices with less duplication is a huge part of what we can do to help them. As I take a step back and think about our strategies, how well they’re working, how much success we’re having with them and how they are perfectly timed for the environment our industry is entering, I feel good and I am excited.

HR: If a retailer can’t make it to Fall Reunion this year, what do you want them to know about the event? What would you say to make sure they attend Spring Reunion?

CK: The health of our business is as strong as it’s been. Our focus on serving our retailers and earning their business is as good as it’s been. We’ve made massive investments in product assortments and are working to help them grow and operate their business. These Reunions are a fantastic opportunity to engage with everyone on my team, learn what we’re doing to help retailers grow their businesses, touch and feel the products and have some fun.

Learn more about the True Value 2022 Fall Reunion here.

About Carly Froderman

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