Evolution Of The Dinosaur

The hardware business is vastly different to what it was 30 years ago. Don Wormald muses over some of the more memorable changes…

The most significant change to occur in the hardware industry over the 30 plus years that I have been involved in it can be summed up in one word: efficiency.

The first shop I bought in 1978 illustrates that point well. Screws were kept in old Singer sewing machine drawers and while there were some pre-packs, there was nowhere near the amount of variety you see today. So you purchased screws in cardboard boxes of one gross (144 for you of the decimal generation) and doled them out as the customer required. The same went for nails. You bought them in 50 pound boxes (22.73 Kg) and weighed it out accordingly. You also filled bulk kero, turps and metho.

Basically, you did a lot more measuring and cutting which meant that everything was a lot more labour intensive. It was a bit of a pain really (thank heavens for the original Zenith Unipacks).

Ordering was similarly inefficient, what with no faxes or internet. Computers were also far too expensive and limited. For your major suppliers you allocated code numbers to the stock items you wanted to order, then waited to close the shop and phoned in these orders to after-hours operators or answering machines. I remember calling these numbers for up to 45 minutes – and you can only imagine the errors that occurred in the transcribing. Smaller suppliers had their reps calling for their orders. It may be more efficient today with our PDEs, PCs, faxes, stock control systems and so on but the human element has largely been phased out. Many a good relationship was forged between retailer and supplier in those days.

Relationships between retailers were also somewhat more civilised. Shortly after I bought that first store in walked Tom ‘Mr Hardware’ Roberts who introduced me to the ways of the Hardware Retailers Association. They ran regular regional meetings in NSW that were attended by most local merchants (except for the only substantial corporate chain, Knock & Kirbys), each one held at an alternating member’s shop – a Danks, Mitre 10, Hardex or an independent. Today you could call such a meeting in a phone booth as there were far more independents in those days.

There was also considerably less emphasis on product regulation. We sold fibro – real asbestos cement sheet. We sold garden chemicals that would have brought a gleam to Saddam Hussein’s eye: 2,4,5-T, Chlordane, Dieldrin, Aldrin, (which was used in Agent Orange), 2,4-D, Amine and Thiodan – a deadly chemical with no antidote and which is still available in Australia – just to name a few. It’s a wonder my kids were born with ten fingers and toes. Similarly, scant attention was paid to OH&S as there was no Worksafe Authority. We lugged 90 pound bags of cement and if you were in a hurry you carried two. Some of the fertiliser bags also came by the hundredweight! My back aches just thinking about it.

One of the regulations that did have a profound impact after it changed was that of trading hours. As featured in a previous article (AHJ October 2008), until 1978 all shops had to close at 12.30pm Saturday and not reopen until Monday. From the end of that year smaller shops could open unrestricted hours and those stores that embraced these new, extended hours flourished. It was during this time that smaller, marginal hardware stores began to die out. Longer hours meant increased competition and within a few years there were no longer two small stores in every suburb – we were down to one.

By the mid-eighties the process of rationalisation of the independent sector had really gathered momentum. The retail groups all saw what was coming but they did not take the necessary action to pre-empt the coming wave (the very nature of the independent side of the industry made that a hard ask anyway). The corporates started to gain the ascendency and then the juggernaut that was the Home Depot business model arrived, first with BBC and the HardwareHouse boxes and then with Bunnings, who polished the model to suit the Australian market better than their competitor. The folk at BBC could never understand why a Bunnings box near an almost identical BBC HardwareHouse could take twice as much and that was why Bunnings was always going to be the winner. It was all about people management.

Hardware thirty years ago was a very different industry than it is today. The vast majority of the changes have been driven by retailers relentlessly pursuing business efficiency and a return on investment. That’s what business is all about really – and in 30 years the industry shrugged off its dinosaur cloak to join the modern era.

Don Wormald has bought and sold many independent hardware stores. He has also been involved in the supply side of the industry as a consultant and a director of a distributor and co-founder of a paint-buying group.