BELLOWS FALLS—How does a local business compete with the big box stores?
For Jeremy Haskins, store manager of J & H Hardware in Bellows Falls, the answer is simple: Take the things that the big box stores do well, and customize them for the needs of a small town.
Haskins, 30, has worked in the retail industry since his first job as a Hinsdale High School student at Walmart. By the time he graduated from Lyndon State College, he was an assistant manager.
After college, he worked briefly for a distributor and then got back into retail as an assistant manager at Dick’s Sporting Goods.
”I was trained by the big box stores,” he said. ”I took what I learned and applied it here.”
The lessons must have worked, as Haskins was recently named one of the home improvement industry’s five Young Retailers of the Year by the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA), an award that honors outstanding achievement by home improvement retailers age 35 and under throughout the United States and Canada.
Haskins was nominated for the award by the cooperative his store belongs to, Do it Best Hardware, which has 4,100 member stores across North America.
“They nominated me for the entire co-op in the under-$2 million [a year] in sales category,” said Haskins. ”It was a surprise to me.”
But it was an award that was earned. It was also the culmination of a four-year journey that began in the spring of 2007, when his father, Sam Haskins, decided to buy the former Brown & Roberts Hardware store in The Square, which was renamed J & H Hardware, after Jeremy and his sister, Heather. Both went to work in the store immediately.
At the time, the store had several strikes against it.
New Hampshire’s lack of a sales tax meant that area shoppers were going to big box stores in Keene or Claremont. Downtown Bellows Falls was in an economic slump, and several retailers had closed or were struggling.
And while the Brown & Roberts store in Brattleboro had managed to thrive despite having a Walmart just a mile away, its Bellows Falls counterpart had not been as prosperous.
“Paul Putnam [the owner of Brown & Roberts] has a good thing going in Brattleboro, and he has a great store, but he couldn’t devote as much time up here,” Haskins said. “He was looking for someone to take this store on.”
Haskins said that his family had to rebuild the store and its inventory almost from scratch. First, product offerings were expanded, and then, departments were reorganized.
“Everything was kind of mixed together,” he said. ”The first thing we did [was to] change the aisles toward the back windows, so that they ran parallel with the lights, and you could see things better. Then, we reorganized the store so that every department is easy to spot and had its own section.”
An unused basement was turned into additional retail space, effectively doubling the sales area to 12,000 square feet. He also added a rental department.
Haskins said that more basement space, now used for excess inventory, will be eventually converted into more retail space.
While J & H offers a little bit of everything, Haskins said, he has focused on key categories, such as electric, plumbing, and painting supplies.
”We’re focused on do-it-yourselfers,” he said. ”The goal is to be able to walk in here and find everything you need for a project, and make sure we have all the parts and tools you need.”
The argument for shopping at big box stores is that they generally have bigger inventories and lower prices than local stores. Haskins has managed to creatively avoid those two problems by teaming up with Do it Best to triple his inventory.
“We have 20,000 items in the store, but we have access to another 65,000 items online, and [Do it Best] will ship here free,” he said. “Being part of a co-op gives us a lot of buying power, so our prices are competitive and sometimes even a bit lower than the big box stores.”
The changes have had an effect. Haskins said that the previous owners had averaged about 25 paying customers on an average day. Now, that number is 200 on weekdays and about 230 on weekends. In the family’s first 3½ years of ownership, sales tripled, including a 12.7-percent increase in 2010.
”You got to do it a little at a time,” Haskins said. ”You got to grow with your growth and expand as your customer base grows.”
He says he still gets people who come in and say, “I didn’t know you had a downstairs.”
“That’s a sign that there are people who haven’t been in here in a while,” Haskins said. “But more people are coming downtown and checking us out.”
He has also tried some unconventional ideas.
When Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters closed its Bellows Falls store last year, it left residents without a place to buy hunting supplies, fishing supplies, and work clothing. Within a few months, Haskins had opened a sporting goods store a few doors down from the hardware store. Heather runs J & H Sporting Goods, which will be expanding soon.
In addition, after hearing comments from customers about not having a place to get a good cup of coffee early in the morning, Haskins added a new snack bar in the front of the store.
”We open at 6:30 in the morning, so a contractor can come in, and get a cup of coffee and anything else that’s needed for the job,” he said. ”It’s one less stop for them.”
While J & H has a website (www.jandhhardware.doitbest.com) and a Facebook page, Haskins said that he is building on a tried-and-true model: Offer quality products, provide good service, identify the needs of your customers, and fill them.
“My parents trusted me,” he said. “My dad told me I could put my degree to use here, and I did.”