A Vote for the Reps

As owners of a fully independent tools and fasteners store in regional Western Australia, Paul and Sharyn Pratt rely heavily on sales reps for guidance, sales advice—even friendship…

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Store: Ralph’s Bolts & Tools, Esperance, WA
Owners: Paul and Sharyn Pratt
Group:

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In their own words, Paul and Sharyn Pratt—as owners of an unaffiliated and private hardware-related business—are part of “a dying breed”. Their independence from well-known buying groups is all the more remarkable given their isolated location in Esperance, which lies about 700kms south-east of Perth and 400kms south of Kalgoorlie.

Paul and Sharyn Pratt, owners of Ralph’s Bolts & Tools

So how does a couple with a single store succeed in the face of direct competition from a Big Box store and several other outlets with major group memberships?

The answer, according to Paul, is difficult to pin down, but success as an independent has a lot to do with close relationships with sales reps, a measure of exclusivity of products and ranges, an insistence on stocking high-quality merchandise, and the ability to engender customer loyalty through honest sales recommendations.

Hayden Brown behind the counter

But the mainstay of this small, independent store, insist Paul and Sharyn, is a strong rapport with suppliers and distributors via their sales reps. “If I don’t get a visit from a company’s rep, then I’m most unlikely to stock a lot of that company’s products,” says Paul. “I might order a small selection because customers demand certain products, but I won’t carry a full range. That’s the way it is.”

Stock selection at Ralph’s Bolts & Tools, therefore, is contingent on a level of interest and understanding from the supplier. And the reasons for this contingency go well beyond old-fashioned handshake deals and eye-to-eye trust.

“The reps we know well, and there are some that we’ve been seeing for 15–18 years, are the kinds of people who don’t try the ‘hard sell’ approach,” explains Paul. “They do the right thing by us and the business. For example, if a rival store is having a run-out on a certain type of product, then we’ll agree with the rep not to stock that product for the time being and try something else. If we show loyalty to them, we expect them to be loyal to us.”

The store displays are comprehensive

This places “good” sales reps in a powerful position as long-term partners in the running of the business. As Paul concedes, he relies on them for advice about new product releases, niche opportunities and advice about future trends. Decisions are critical because stock deliveries from Perth or the eastern States can take a long time to arrive, so orders must be comprehensive and sizeable without leading to unmanageable storage problems or low stockturn rates.

Such relationships have been forged over a long time. Paul managed the shop for Sharyn’s family from 1985, and then purchased it from them in 1994. The original 150m2 store operated in central Esperance until 25 June last year, when new 450m2 premises were opened on the main road in the commercial area three kilometres away. The expanded building offers a platform for grander displays and also raises the profile of the enterprise. These days the husband-and-wife team is supported by a full-time employee, Hayden Brown, who helps with day-to-day operations.

Compromise
Apart from maintaining steadfast links with sales reps, Paul says the solid performance of the store is based on carefully refined (and limited) Department layouts.

Ralph’s Bolts & Tools in Esperance, WA

“In fact, we don’t really call ourselves a hardware store at all,” he says. “We specialise in power and hand tools and fasteners, and leave the rest of the stuff to the other stores.” The result is a business that appeals mainly to trade clients (70% of overall custom), but new strategies are being implemented to enhance consumer patronage.

Nevertheless, “compromises” always exist in the way products are chosen. Sharyn says there is a constant conflict between the need to satisfy certain clients’ demands for cheap products, and their own inclination to stock only superior equipment.

“We’ve been trying for years to work out the correct mix, but the Western Australian market is not the same as that in the eastern States,” she says. “People here are price-conscious but they also like to stick with what they know. They are cautious of change.”

“Reps Aren’t Salesmen…”
By specialising in core, professional ranges from companies like Ryobi, Hitachi, Bosch, AEG, Irwin and Sidcrome, Ralph’s Bolts and Tools has managed to create an all-important “point of difference” between itself and more generic hardware outlets.

Internal layouts are spacious and trade-oriented

Costs are kept down through on-site warehousing, consisting of about 100m2 of space to the rear of the building. In addition, strategic advertising plays a role in promoting specials and consolidating the image of the store. Radio is the preferred medium in terms of affordability and its high exposure to the building trade.

“My biggest message to the large [supplier] companies is that their reps are very important to people in the country,” says Paul.

“Our reps aren’t salesmen; they’re friends and people who help us with our business.”

By John Power