South Boston Hardware & Power Equipment in South Boston, Va., has gone through many evolutions as a retail business since its early days. Current owner George Hayes’ in-laws the Halls bought a Western Auto franchise in the mid-1950s, carrying automotive, toys and bikes.
“People were just getting started with credit. When they got their tobacco crop they would pay off their debt,” explains George’s son John, who runs the store with him today. “Then the business went totally automotive.”
George started working in the business in 1976. In the early 1980s, they joined True Value and began offering a typical hardware assortment. They hung onto tires and batteries, and sold a lot of sporting goods bought through True Value. They used to do screen printing for uniforms, but that business dried up.
“The industry has changed through the years. Products come and go and you have to keep trying new things,” John points out.
“We’ve tried lot of different things over the years—trailers, motorcycles, fencing, dog pens. If you don’t try new items you die out,” explains George.
Small stores located in downtown areas also need to make sure they don’t get trapped by changing demographics, and that is a lesson that has been applied to South Boston Hardware.
In 1987, they bought a lot and moved from their little downtown store to a new 10,000-square-foot ground-up store. They were still in the downtown area, but they had their own parking, a basement for storage and the building was located on the bypass with lots of traffic.
The latest transformation came in the 1990s when they took on Kawasaki outdoor power equipment and started getting into the newest OPE trend: zero-turn mowers.
“We’ve really evolved over the last 10 to 15 years to specialize in outdoor power equipment due to the development of the zero-turn mowers,” says John. “Outdoor power equipment has evolved into a real niche. We did offer garden rental equipment for a time, but that’s played out.”
New Emphasis on Hardware
When the recession hit in 2008, it became increasingly difficult to find people interested in spending $10,000 on a utility vehicle. Increased emphasis on mowers and hand-held power equipment helped the business survive the economic downturn, but fewer customers were viewing them as a destination for hardware.
Lowe’s had opened in South Boston, while Home Depot opened stores in nearby Danville and South Hill, Va. Walmart is three miles down the road and they are surrounded by dollar stores.
With their ability to continue competing in core hardware categories at risk, a fortuitous event happened—they got a visit from Bill Barnette, regional manager for House-Hasson.
“We really liked Bill Barnette’s personality and what he showed us. It seemed like House-Hasson had a lot to offer us,” says George.
They signed up with House-Hasson last fall and had them come in and do a merchandise plan and reset of the hardware categories. “They helped with the remodel and had a lot of good ideas for how we could boost that part of our business,” says John.
They spent a fair amount of time getting the store design just right. “We decided to have lawn and garden and outdoor power equipment on the left side and core hardware on the right side and back middle,” explains George. “We really beefed up our plumbing and electrical departments.”
Going through the assortment planning process forced them to evaluate the business with a critical eye. “We cannot be everything to everyone. If we can offer customers the basics for DIY stuff then we’re relevant,” George says.
“We got away from our roots in hardware. We didn’t have a strong electrical and hardware department, and our tool selection was shabby. House-Hasson helped us remerchandise those categories so we’re strong again,” John adds.
“House-Hasson just has a good selection of everything. You can customize circulars so you’re not forced to stock an item,” notes George. He says they enjoyed attending the dealer market last fall, playing in the golf tourney and finding some good buys.
Steve Martin is their territory manager for House-Hasson, and he has helped them adjust to having a new hardware supplier. “He does a nice job for us and is getting us up to speed with Etoolbox and ordering with CipherLab,” George says.
They still sell ATVs, utility vehicles, go karts and scooters, as well as Cooper tires. They are an authorized dealer for Toro, Cub Cadet, Scag, Exmark and Echo power equipment. Scag was a new addition this year.
Their key to success in OPE is having a good parts and service department that assembles and repairs power equipment.
“We excel in convenience and service and now have a nice assortment of products,” says George. “We try to give good service, treat people fairly and provide good value. You can’t make it on one-time customers.”
As George points out, their saving grace over the years has been their experienced, knowledgeable staff. “Our manager, Doug Bolles, has been here over 40 years and I’ve been here 42 years. We know customers by their first name.”
With House-Hasson’s help, they are back in the hardware game.