Top of the town

For 20 years Bruce Sanders’ family was the landlord of a hardware store; then Sanders and his partners decided to take over the business. Talk about a good move…!

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Store: Top Town Hardware
Principals: Bruce & Diane Sanders, Steve Tobin, Bob Currell
Group: Key Hardware
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People enter the retail hardware environment for all sorts of reasons. For some it’s a matter of continuing family traditions; for others, it’s the result of happy coincidences and being in the right place at the right time; and there are those who look at the hardware trade from afar and think, “This is for me!”

Bruce and Dianne Sanders (front) with Bob Currell and Steve Tobin (rear) stand outside the store front of Top Town Hardware in Woolgoolga (NSW)

Bruce Sanders, his wife Dianne and their partners Steve Tobin and Bob Currell can claim that all of the above circumstances apply to their entry into the retail market. In December last year, the partners opened Top Town Hardware in Woolgoolga, about 25kms north of Coffs Harbour and 55kms east of Grafton, with the partnership bringing together friends of different backgrounds. Both Tobin and Currell had worked at the store for many years under previous business owners, while Sanders ran a TV repair shop and Dianne was familiar with work in retail establishments. Sanders and Dianne maintained a passive interest in the hardware store as owners of the property during its use as a True Value store for 14 years and, most recently, under a Home Hardware banner for two and half years.

In mid-2002 the previous occupant of the store shifted his hardware business to a nearby industrial estate, opening the gates for the new partners to combine their talents and become proud retailers at Top Town Hardware’s site in River Street.

The partners’ first move was to join the Key Hardware Group, which operates in NSW, QLD and NT and has recently opened a new warehouse. The group allows members to maintain their independence and benefit from three catalogue releases per year without high-cost promotional expenses.

The store was also given a facelift to expand floor space and open up the aisle configurations to offer customers a more relaxed and logical shopping experience. High priority was also given to the provision of generous selections in all departments. The floor area is now 300sqm with a 450sqm yard and off-street parking.

Minimum fuss

Overall, the “new look” store has undergone its metamorphosis with a minimum of fuss and disruption. “It’s been easy because of the fact that Steve and Bob had worked at the store for so many years,” says Sanders. “As far as the interior layout and design is concerned, they had a lot of ideas about how they’d like things to look, so we went ahead with that.”

Bob Currell and his partners attract clients from 20kms away

In many ways the new business reflects a “back to basics” mentality, driven by a policy to offer good prices and cater to the personal needs of the local market. The partners also recognise the value of having long-term, professional owners and staff in-house who know the industry and can assist clients with small or large orders. This appeal is evident in the growth of trade accounts, which has risen from zero to 90 in the three months since the store opened.

Having friendly and knowledgeable personnel is also “key” to the attraction of general consumers who wish to use the store for “everything including paint, timber, homewares, gas and camping and general hardware,” adds Sanders. At present the handyman/consumer sector constitutes 75% of all business turnover.

Having such a healthy consumer client base is critical to sales of high-margin items, and the store is a good advertisement for the drawing power of prominent, centrally located premises. As a hardware store with great presence in the town, it attracts passing trade while offering convenience to local shoppers who wish to make multi-store purchases.

As usual, marketing is a necessary and important component of any hardware enterprise, however the no-fuss store style works well when applied to advertising schedules. Apart from weekly ads in the local newspaper and (to date) a single catalogue release, most promotion is achieved through word of mouth and reputation.

Dianne Sanders had a retail background before moving into hardware

The store has no Internet presence and does not even maintain an IT system; in other words, experience has shown that good prices and high-quality personal assistance are more important to local consumers than website wizardry – for the time being at least. This might be explained in part by the immediate demographic, which comprises retirees, tradespeople and businesses associated with banana plantations.

In a short space of time, Top Town Hardware has established itself as a new business in familiar clothes, and succeeded without adopting the trappings of advanced marketing or design technologies.

The store is already turning over three quarters of the business it enjoyed as a True Value outlet, and the biggest challenge of the future, according to Bruce, is inevitably going to be even higher turnover. But the signs for growth are promising. “We will take between $750,000 and $1 million this 12 months,” he says, proving this reborn business is indeed going ahead in leaps and bounds.

Story by John Power