Winning in a crowded market

In the old days the town of Sebastopol, located south-west of Ballarat, Victoria, had “a pub on every corner”. Today, the town’s hardware outlets are just as ubiquitous — and “savvy” is competing with “size”…

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Store: Sebastopol Mitre 10 Home & Trade
Principals: Barrie, Craig and Steven Coltman
Group: Mitre 10
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“It is possible to take on the big barn competition and win,” says Craig Coltman, co-principal of the newly rebuilt Sebastopol Home & Trade Mitre 10 store in the historic town of Sebastopol, southern Victoria. “That’s the main message I want to make to all the independents out there.”

The newly rebuilt Sebastopol Home & Trade Mitre 10 store is located in the historic town of Sebastopol, southern Victoria

Craig runs the Sebastopol outlet with his brother Steven and father Barrie, and the trio also have a large store in nearby Ballarat. Both stores are Home & Trade-branded.

The two businesses are highly successful despite massive competition from the likes of big barn outlets, trade stores, plumbing centres, garden businesses and department stores carrying hardware lines. In fact, when asked to identify how many major hardware groups operate in his area, Craig was quick to respond: “All of them.”

The good news as far as Craig is concerned is that so-called “category killers” have proved to be difficult — but not deadly — rivals. Big barns, he says, can have difficulties catering to the individual demands of townships.

(l&r) Steven and Craig Coltman

As part of a strategy to keep the Sebastopol outlet fresh, modern and responsive to consumer expectations, the store has just been rebuilt under Mitre 10’s Generation 21 guidelines, with land from six abutting residential properties absorbed into the site. The expanded precinct, opened on 13-14 December 2003 after three and a half years of planning, features 7,000m2 of retail space, a 3,500m2 timberyard and a 2,000m2 garden department.

There are also parking spaces for 200 vehicles. The reconstruction has increased the overall size of the business by about 40%, and follows in the footsteps of a full refurbishment of the Ballarat store.

This level of investment takes courage and confidence, but the Coltman family has had more than a century to hone its knowledge of the local hardware market. Craig’s great grandfather, William F. Coltman, assumed control of the Ballarat business in 1892.

(l&r) David Bandy, store manager at Ballarat; and Jason Webster, store manager at Sebastopol

Twenty years ago, after subsequent generations had grown the business, an extra outlet was purchased at Bacchus Marsh — and then another at Melton 15 years ago. The Sebastopol store was bought in 1992.

While the family has since sold its Bacchus Marsh and Melton stores, its status as a major hardware retailer is well-earned. Links with Mitre 10 are long-standing and tight (Steven is a current Mitre 10 director), and the family’s Ballarat store was the 16th store nationally to join the Mitre 10 Group.

With such a background, Craig and Steven were able to call on plenty of experience when undertaking the Sebastopol rebuilding works. “We had a lot of assistance from Mitre 10 with the design, and we also used our own ideas,” says Craig.

“Lifestyle centre”
The new outlet recognises the efficiencies demanded by trade clients, who accounted for 70% of turnover in the old store and remain a strong force following the upgrade. “The store has a racetrack format,” explains Craig, “and there is a drive-through for timber and building clients.

“The store is built between two roads and you can drive right through to the far road, and there is a trade entrance in the rear; it is important to make the trade shopping experience as efficient as possible because trade people want to be in and out.”

The rest of the store is a model of how to cater to contemporary consumer habits. “A decade ago we were ‘problem solvers’,” says Craig. “Now we are a lifestyle centre.”

The expanded store features 7,000m2 of retail space

This has led to the creation of clean, ordered and bright display areas, complete with specially chosen painted (light grey) concrete floors and a consistent wall wash to enhance the fully lined internal walls. Lighting is bright (“there are no dark areas”), positioned purposely to minimise shadowed zones, and a mixture of high and low racking bordering wide aisles helps to delineate product categories. Icon departments include Paint, Garden and Tools (power and hand), with a 300m2 Merbau deck devoted to outdoor living items.

“The whole look is very friendly; you walk in and you feel instantly that you’re not entering a shed,” says Craig. “We’re big enough to have complete ranges of products, mostly sourced from Mitre 10, but supplemented with other lines that help separate us from other stores, even other Mitre 10 stores.” The result is a balance of well-known mainstream brands alongside locally unique offerings.

A staff of 55 people at Sebastopol participate in the “friendly” atmosphere, helping customers when required, but also respecting the “space” of those people who need time to absorb ideas or examine product varieties.

Price is important, “but only for about one transaction in 10,” says Craig. For most people, he observes, a happy shopping experience is equally dependent on logical product placement, full trolley bays, up-to-date inventories and a sense that the store is a business — not a barn. “A store has to evolve,” says Craig, “and we have major plans for both our stores in the coming year. You can’t afford to be static.”

Story by John Power