‘The Hardware Store’ is a rare find in the independent hardware industry. This is because the popular store not only offers its customers a substantial trade and retail offer but has also developed an extensive online offer that continues to grow the business in many ways.
Today the Sydney-based store boasts over 9000 SKUs online, with its fully functioning virtual presence available to both cash and account customers.
Store owner, Grant Crowle has over 20 years of experience in the hardware industry and says that although it took a substantial amount of time and money to develop the e-commerce offer, he believes the system is now at a point where it is easy to update and integrate on a daily basis.
The store’s extensive virtual offer initially came about after Grant spoke with several software companies when attending HBT’s national conference in 2017. It was during this conference that Grant realised it was the perfect time for his store to present an online offer and he began to investigate his options.
“Initially we started our online journey with a different software company and we put a lot of time and effort into developing a new system. Unfortunately, what we did not realise at the time was that the particular software company we chose did not allow us to update our system any more than once per month. This was not going to work for us because we required a system that had the ability to be updated daily,” he said.
“We then had to abort this initial system and we went on to work with Sympac Online who provided us with a more user-friendly system that could be updated daily. When we use Sympac’s system and we implement a change, the update is on our website within 30 seconds because it is all integrated via our Sympac point of sale, which we were already using in-store.”
“We have been on board with Sympac since 2000 and we run their system pretty hard. Like so many hardware stores, being a mid-sized business means we do not have our own IT department, so if something is not really working for us, we tell Sympac and they fix it from their end,” Grant said.
Today the store runs a full online portal for all customers, with both cash and account customers having the ability to log in, order stock, source invoices and approve quotes.
“Initially we did do quite a bit of work between our website and Sympac so it was integrated, all while pointing our SEO in the right direction. This is because Sympac runs under ‘Sympac Online’ so we needed to make sure that all of our searches recognised us as ‘The Hardware Store’ as well.”
Grant says the store’s site – www.thehardwarestore.com.au – continues to run well but is an ongoing project. Images need to be double-checked, products need to be correctly displayed, and de-ranged products need to be deleted from the site, all while ensuring customers can search for products easily.
The team initially integrates all of its products onto the website via the store’s point-of-sale. Grant says the system is very user-friendly with any products implemented via the point of sale system automatically updating online.
“The team can opt for a product to be visible online with a price displayed, they can opt for an online product to be displayed with no pricing or opt for the product to not go online at all. Some of our online products are only available via ‘price on enquiry’ because we need to negotiate with our customers on a number of items including skylights, LVL, timber and cladding.”
Although Grant believes the site is utilised by customers to purchase some products, he says that customers also use the space to find products and then contact the store, rather than directly purchasing products online.
“You cannot really look at the site’s cost return because it is difficult to determine whether the business has made a profit from an online enquiry. You simply cannot measure a sale if a customer looks something up and sends an enquiry direct to the store whether this is from a phone call or email.”
“Although the online space may not contribute to our sales to a large degree, it still ensures that a lot of customers get in touch with us. Online customers might include builders checking to see if we can help them out with something like cladding systems or LVL. For now, we just keep on improving the site so it will eventually run better when it comes to the day-to-day demands of the business. All of our social media currently points back to the website and we are just pushing this along as well,” Grant said.
The Hardware Store was initially built as a smaller, convenience hardware store after it was established in the western Sydney suburb of Burwood in 1995. The business then moved to a larger site closer to the inner-city suburb of Balmain in 2005, with an initial focus on catering primarily to the trade. However, it was not long before the Balmain store outgrew this space and Grant opened a third store in Alexandria in 2014.
“I ran both stores together before the lease ran out in Balmain when the landlord looked to redevelop the site into an apartment block. Incredibly, we outgrew our business in Alexandria and we found a new site in Leichhardt which we built two years ago.”
The new 2400 square metre store caters primarily to the store’s strong trade base, with Grant already holding several trade nights with over 100 builders attending for smoked meats and beers while chatting with many suppliers. Grant says the trade nights are more about developing relationships rather than achieving additional sales.
The store’s customer base also now boasts around 90 per cent trade to 10 per cent retail, with Grant saying it is still vitally important to build up the DIY side of the business.
“We want to continually work with DIY customers which is why we have maintained a good offering. Because the store is relatively new, I just think it takes locals time to know who we are and deal with us on an ongoing basis. Continually advertising is hard yakka for so many businesses unless you have an abundance of cash, which is the case with the big green shed. People think they will get a better deal there but they soon realise when they come to us that we are price competitive and we have what they need,” he said.
Although The Hardware Store has only been at the new site for just over two years, the business is gradually growing its retail numbers as more and more trades find the store when they head to work. The store is also trading seven days a week so it can maintain a high level of service to the local community.
“When we were in Balmain, we had quite a good proportion of retail on offer. Now that we have moved to Leichhardt, which is literally only three kilometres away, this is still a different market. In Balmain, we found that a lot of our customers did a lot less work themselves. The trade side of the business also went up as more builders came into the area to work,” he said.
“Bunnings has opened a small concept store nearby of about 4000 square metres, but I am not sure this is going too well. In saying this we do have eight other Bunnings stores within seven kilometres of us at the moment.”
“We also have several other good, independent hardware stores nearby, including Dahlsens, Hudsons, and we have competition coming in from outside the area which includes H&G,” he said.
While competition is fierce in the local area, Grant said the store easily combats this by remaining price competitive across the board and maintaining a determined attitude to match the bigger competitors on price and product.
“We are very competitive by offering high-quality competitive products, such as our Haymes paint. It is products such as these that provide customers with quite a significant saving in a top-quality brand. We also sell a lot of products that are not available in Bunnings, like Soudal, as well as housewares, a bit of plumbing and obviously lots of tools and fixings as well.”
“We stick to what we know and I think a lot of things that we sell to our trade include products builders use when cleaning sites, such as Spray ‘n Wipe and a roll of Chux, as well as brooms and hoses. These are all things they need when they are finishing off a job. If we can ensure our shop allows for one-stop shopping for the tradie, it really helps.”
“We also sell potting mix and mulch and one of the local garden centres buys this from us when they get stuck because we are so cheap. We also have a lot of landscapers buy our timber to build decks. They think it is great that they can also buy mulches and potting mixes from us and finish off their jobs without having to go to another garden centre,” Grant said.
While Grant says he will continue to upgrade the store’s online processes, for now he also plans to continually market the store as well.
“We do need to market ourselves a bit better. Recently we finally got around to organising a trade show which went really well. We do not try and push sales on the night. It is really a knowledge thing for our builders and trades.”
“Hopefully, events such as these will flow through to sales and having the builders work more with us as well. Not everything comes down to the bottom line. While we believe we are very competitive, you can’t always rely on this because there is always someone out there who wants to sharpen the pencil a bit more than you,” Grant concluded.