DISPATCHES ENCORE: Locally Owned Hardware Store Carves Out a Niche in Waukee
The story of small businesses being ousted by big retailers is a tale all too common, but Waukee Hardware, now in its 122nd year of business, is bucking that trend.
When Geoff Warmouth heard that a Sears Hometown Store was moving into Waukee last fall, he was decidedly nervous.
After 122 years in Waukee and nearly 17 of those under Warmouth's ownership, the Waukee Hardware Store had, along with the good, also seen its fair share of bad times. Home foreclosures, the recession, even a nearby Menards store had had an affect on business.
Warmouth was concerned the new Sears store would harm his business.
This story is reprised today because it has been selected for national publication by The Huffington Post.
"I honestly didn't know what to expect," Warmouth said. "I wasn't sure what the impact would be on business, I didn't even know what kind of Sears store it would be, so I couldn't really say what effect it might have on us."
You could say it's a sign of the times. As the large, big box, home improvement stores grow to serve urban sprawl in many major metropolitan areas, shoppers in smaller communities — the ones who, for years, have supported the locally owned mom and pop-type hardware stores like Warmouth's — are being lured away with the promise of low prices and vast inventory.
"Here, I get in and out and I'm happy. I also like the idea of supporting local business."
Warmouth gets it. His philosophy? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
"I'd call us a convenience hardware store," said Warmouth. "We're not in competition with the Lowe's, Home Depot, and Menards stores. In fact, I try not to compare us with them at all."
Wal-Mart Seen as Bigger Threat to Small Hardware Stores
Good thing because in the hardware and home-improvement industry, it seems there's room for them all. A recent Highbeam report found that in 2009 there were about 30,000 hardware and home improvement stores in the United States.
According to the report, it wasn't necessarily the Sears, Lowe's and Home Depots edging out the independent hardware store owners. It was stores like Kmart and Wal-Mart with their growing hardware sales departments that were their biggest competition. With more than 9,600 Wal-Mart stores worldwide — and most in or near small communities — many independent hardware retailers struggled to stay afloat.
But business owners like Warmouth seem to flourish, thanks in part to the support of nationwide hardware wholesalers like Ace Hardware, True Value and Do It Best Hardware. Waukee Hardware is a member-owned store affiliated with Do It Best, a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based wholesaler with more than 4,000 stores worldwide.
Warmouth, 46, said he's done everything he can to ingratiate himself into the Waukee community, making him a one-stop shop for everything local folks might need to make a quick repair or finish up a home improvement job.
The store boasts nearly 30,000 different items, including gallons of paint, bathroom fixtures, rental equipment, greeting cards, sleds and other outdoor toys, T-shirts, home decor and even candy.
"We try to have the perception that we have everything and how we do that is by variety," Warmouth said. "I may have a customer who comes in and says, 'You know what, I've been looking all over for this.' So we dust it off, ring it up and they're on their way."
Customer Service, Easy Access Draws Customers
Warmouth says customer service is the key to success in a town the size of Waukee. The store is open seven days a week, the staff is well-versed in just about every area of home improvement, and they always go above and beyond what's expected of them.
That's what attracted Joe Daugherty to the store one morning. Daugherty, of Waukee, does snow removal in the winter. He came in looking for a new salt spreader after his broke down. Warmouth quickly sealed a deal on a used spreader for Daugherty at just $35. The whole transaction took less than 10 minutes.
"I grew up in Adel and I really like the small hometown hardware stores," Daugherty said. "I don't like spending a lot of time looking for what I need. If you go into a Lowe's store, you spend time hunting someone down and that can take forever. Here, I get in and out and I'm happy. I also like the idea of supporting local business."
Hardware Owner Welcomes Sears Store to Waukee
Remember the Sears store? Warmouth says his worries were unfounded. Shortly before the store's opening in November, Warmouth did the neighborly thing and introduced himself to the store's local owner, Lee Mundus.
Mundus, it turns out, is a lot like Warmouth. While he understands that a little competition is good, he also knows it's all about keeping business local.
"I actually knew when we opened up that there would be a little bit of overlap in our inventory but, for the most part, our businesses are different," said Mundus. "That's great because what people can't get here, we send them to Geoff and vice versa."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.