Many businesses have reduced personal service in their stores in order to cut costs. Self-service is everywhere you look: online, at gas stations and big-box stores, and now many grocery stores have self-checkout lanes.
An exception is hardware stores, particularly smaller, independent ones. Many independents are thriving and competing with chain stores by pouring on the personal service and filling shelves with things that appeal to their local clientele.
Hardware stores these days must “create an environment where hardware store customers, now estimated to be 50 percent female, can wander and shop,” writes Newsday.
Service equals survival
Besides the usual screws, bolts and tools, customers at rural hardware stores buy fishing and hunting licenses, tackle, guns and ammo. In suburban hardware stores, you may find organic dog food, fancy kitchenware and upscale scented candles and soap.
Cole Hardware, an independent in San Francisco, sells rapid transit passes. Customers enjoy a birthday discount equal to half their age, and they can recycle old paint, batteries, scrap metal, cellphones, printer cartridges and fluorescent light bulbs. “By the way, we sell hardware, too,” the store’s website quips.
President Rick Karp, whose father founded the business in 1959, said in an interview:
“Whether we make money on it or not, we want you to think of us. Our stores have become a community resource. Not just a place to buy nuts and bolts.”
Cole, like most independent U.S. hardware stores, belongs to a large cooperative, Ace Hardware Co., in Cole’s case. Hardware co-ops help smaller stores compete with chains by offering independent retailers private-label brands, lower-priced merchandise, advertising programs, business expertise and even financing. The three largest U.S. co-ops are Ace, Do It Best Co. and True Value Co., according to the North American Retail Hardware Association’s 2013 annual report.
Cole’s four-store chain “couldn’t survive without the cooperative,” Karp said.
A shopper’s life gets sweeter when stores knock themselves out to offer service. In The News-Messenger in Fremont, Ohio, a writer describes a shopping trip:
Needing a replacement for a cracked handle on a crock pot cover, I went back and forth from Associated Buyers to Ace Hardware in Potter Village Shopping Center, eventually getting a handle that fit at one store and the right-sized screws at the other. At both places, the people went out of their way to help, spent their valuable time and rang up sales that totaled no more than a few dollars between the two stores.
Here are 14 freebies found at hardware stores. Some are common, others not. Some are found at big chain stores, others more often at smaller stores. Each independent, including members of the Ace, True Value and Do It Best co-ops, sets its own policies, so call or check the store’s website to learn what’s offered locally.
1. Materials estimating
Lowe’s 19 online calculators help you determine how much flooring, insulation, fertilizer, concrete, carpet, grass seed, mulch, paint, wallpaper and other materials you’ll need to buy for a project.
At smaller hardware stores, you may be able to bring in your project’s written dimensions and ask a staff member to help with planning and estimating materials.
2. Cut materials to spec
You can do many DIY tasks and projects without buying a saw by purchasing materials at a hardware store that cuts them to the lengths you need.
Most hardware stores, including small stores and large chain stores, cut wood you’ve bought. Other stuff hardware stores may cut free include pipe (some stores thread it for free, too), rope, tile, chain, window shades, hardware cloth, glass and plexiglass.
3. Pay utility bills
At some Ace hardware stores, while picking up garden tools and shopping for hex nuts you also can pay your utility bills at in-store payment centers.
4. Mail packages
Many Ace stores contain UPS and U.S. Postal Service branches, letting shoppers tick off several errands at once.