words by Rick Bohan; photos by Katie Jackson
You run a small, somewhat organized hardware store in northwest Akron. Stained glass windows, plumbing fixtures, single pole switches, and knick-knacks salvaged from nearby homes as they were being demolished share space on your shop shelves. One of your competitors, Lowe’s Stores, sold more that $56B worth of single pole switches, plumbing fixtures, and other goods and services last year. It spent about $800M of that on advertising. Another direct competitor, Home Depot, sold $83B worth of goods and services and bought the same amount of advertising. Your own advertising consists of a Facebook page that you’d like to do a better job of maintaining, if you can find the time. Lowe’s has a quarter of a million employees, Home Depot has more. At your store, there are just three employees.
The question is…how do you compete? How do you stay in business for 85 years? How do you carve out your niche?
“Customers come here for a number of reasons but mainly because their parents and grandparents came here,” says employee Vern Christian. “Another reason is that they know we are likely to have the plumbing or electrical part they need even when one of the big box stores doesn’t. The folks at those stores will sometimes send customers our way for certain items they know they don’t carry.”
Staying in the hardware business for nearly a century isn’t a given. The West Akron area has seen larger stores, like DIY and Builders Square, come to the area and fail. And the competition keeps coming with a new Ace Hardware of Wallhaven having opened its doors in February. (Ace Hardware is a co-op rather than a franchise or corporate store, so all stores are independently owned.)
“Our market niche,” adds owner Richard Tschantz, “is made up of the owners and residents of all these old houses in the area. Some of the homes are a century old and more. They need hardware that’s not easy to find at other stores. So they come here. Lowe’s has any part you might need so long as your house was built after 1970 or so. If your house was built in the ‘50’s, that’s a new one in this neighborhood.”
When asked where he gets such a hard to find inventory, Taschantz replies, “Some of it is just here and has been for years. We also do some salvage, though not as much as we used to. Overall, we keep our inventory small as we can. The big box stores can carry every type of electric hardware you can imagine. We just carry a few but it’s the few that the neighborhood seems to need.”
Good service must be a part of any small business’ strategy and West Hill Hardware is no exception. Vern Christian describes the personal touch that all West Hill Hardware customers receive: “About half our customers know what they need when they come in. The other half don’t have any idea. They have a problem and are hoping we can help them find the parts they need and give them advice on how to fix the problem. We spend time with them, giving them the right instructions. You can’t be sure of getting that sort of service at a big box hardware store. And if we can’t help, we have a list of trade people that we trust who we recommend.”
“It is a challenge competing with the big guys but we have a pretty loyal customer base that seem to like what we’re doing, so I guess we’ll stay at it for the time being,” says Tschantz.
West Akron residents, and beyond, hope that West Hill Hardware stays at it for at least another eight decades.