No price tags, no fuss

With no price tags, negligible advertising and no gimmicks, Barwon Timber & Hardware in Victoria is a large, trade-oriented store that targets the professionals — and tradesmen love it…

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Store: Barwon Timber & Hardware
Owner: Bill Trengrove
Groups: Hardware & Building Traders (HBT); John Danks & Son, IPC program

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There are no price tags in sight at Barwon Timber & Hardware, situated in Breakwater on the outskirts of Geelong, about an hour’s drive west of Melbourne. Nor are there any glossy posters on the walls, fancy displays, “handy hints” message boards or elaborate merchandising stalls.

Barwon Timber & Hardware, can be found on the outskirts of Geelong, about an hour’s drive west of Melbourne

But customers will find massive ranges of fasteners, extensive collections of heavy hardware for the building industry and some of the most knowledgeable staff in the business. This is a store where 99% of clients are professional tradesmen and women, about 400 of whom have regular accounts at the desk.

While there are no burly bouncers at the entrance preventing TV-primed DIYers from looking around, the message to enthusiastic amateurs is clear: you can buy 30-cm rulers and glue sticks at the newsagent’s!

The 900m2 store, which has been trading for three and half years, is just one element of the 12-acre business incorporating timber, truss and window manufacturing operations. Owner Bill Trengrove began with a timber mill in 1981, and expanded the company to include a truss plant (Bartruss) and window fabrication business (Mouldright) in the intervening years. These business units are currently spread in and around a principal 12-acre property, and will be consolidated within the main site in the near future to create a single, “no fuss” outlet for all trade needs.

Russell Trotter ready to help “tradies” with their power tools

Purchasing manager Bill Williamson has very direct and uncompromising views about the success of the business, stating that there are no plans to increase the tiny percentage of consumer clients.

Servicing Geelong and the nearby townships of the Bellarine Peninsula and Surf Coast, the business has capitalised on recent booms in property construction and renovation, and the trade sector, according to Williamson, causes fewer headaches than the consumer base.

Williamson says the retail outlet was formed to cater to the high demand for specialist trade hardware and tools. Many tradesmen were already familiar with the core range of construction materials on offer, and were therefore delighted to find that they could complement their orders with fasteners, post supports, nails, high-class tools, brackets and insulation materials.

The retail business has since grown at a rapid annual rate, largely on the basis of favourable word of mouth.

Nuts ‘n’ bolts shelving
Barwon Timber & Hardware, it must be said, has enjoyed success because it understands its clientele in depth. Goods are stocked along accessible and simple timber shelves without unnecessary panache, and large orders are typically attached to timber/truss deliveries for quick offloading at worksites. Perhaps the most crucial point to observe is that, while the displays might be rough and ready, they are as well ordered as they are comprehensive.

Purchasing manager Bill Williamson says there are no plans to increase the small percentage of consumer clients

The fastening department, for example, is massive: “We’ve taken the attitude that if you are going to have one line of fasteners, you may as well stock the lot,” says Williamson. “I’d say fasteners are our biggest range; we’ve got nails (a complete range of zinc, galvanised, etc), nails for nail guns, bolts, dynabolts, and our section of screws alone is 18m long by 2m high. We’ve got simple timber shelving with boxes arranged along them, and when a box runs out we just replace it with a fresh one.”

Door furniture is another hugely popular department. Williamson says he has a healthy respect for Gainsborough products, for instance, and finds that shelving is as easy to manage in this area as it is in the fastening section.

Andrew Auld is part of the knowledgeable team at Barwon Timber & Hardware

In fact the whole store is a lean operation with just three full-time and one part-time personnel. Despite a huge turnover, this efficiency has been achieved by dispensing with the usual retail niceties (such as price tags!) and instead concentrating on good deals, highly professional service and loyalty to the needs of professional customers.

At any given time there are dozens of orders on the go — and clients in the middle of jobs know they can drop in for a purchase without battling through overcrowded car parks full of eager pergola-building mums and dads.

Williamson says the major challenge facing the business is continued growth. He accepts that trade specialisation could place the store in a vulnerable position in the event of a construction downturn; however he is convinced that such a slump would have a negative impact on all hardware businesses, including consumer-oriented outlets.

In the immediate future the store will undergo a moderate 360m2 expansion to add two extra aisles to the floor plan. This new space will be devoted exclusively to door furniture.

The store philosophy is one of quiet professionalism that targets specialist customers who know what they want. The mission is facilitated by the store’s membership of Hardware & Building Traders, the main strength of which is buying power rather than promotion. Trade clients, Williamson explains, respond to good deals, in-store expertise and invoicing flexibility rather than colourful weekly specials — and the dynamism of the business seems to vindicate that position.

Story by John Power