Fastener outlet advances via e-commerce
When Bill Lawlor first opened his small hardware store in Huntingdale, Melbourne in 1993, he never would have imagined just how extensive the store’s customer base would be under his son’s leadership, many years later.
Business: The Fastener Factory
Owner: Mick Lawlor
Location: Oakleigh, VIC
Buying Group: HBT (Hardware & Building Traders)
While Bill did make a good living selling budget hardware products to the local industrial and manufacturing area for over 17 years, by the mid 2000s Bill was hopeful on slowing down, particularly as Big Box competition saw independent retailing become significantly challenging in the area.
However, his son, Mick had big plans for the store when he first took it over in 2010, and was quick to substantially evolve the business in-store and on-line.
“When I first purchased the store, I wanted to evolve the business as a fastener and trade specialist, particularly considering we had always sold lots of screws and fasteners. It was in 2012 when the most substantial changes were made, after the store was re-branded and re-launched on an e-commerce site called The Fastener Factory.”
“The business quickly moved into a larger factory outlet in 2015, while also adding 200 square metres of mezzanine flooring to the factory outlet in 2019 transforming the below retail space and also offering extra storage. The retail space is 300 square metres, and is mostly shelves of screws and fasteners ,” Mick said.
Advanced on-line space
Working in hardware from a young age, Mick has a strong background in the industry, but also studied a Bachelor of Commerce, which led him to concentrate heavily on web design, marketing and product development within the business.
It was through Mick’s e-commerce experience that he built an extensive on-line presence for the The Fastener Factory, with its website and in-house web team growing the website to become one of the highest ranked fastener shops in Australia.
“We now have over 10,000 products online along with a world of information and resources. We are also very lucky to have such a great team of staff who provide a high level of customer service and are dedicated to the development of the business,” he said.
While Mick admits there were not many hardware retailers running e-commerce when he launched his on-line store in 2012, he had already attempted to launch online six years before this but it was just too early for consumers to embrace the idea.
“It was always going to happen so you just have to keep trying. I went in a bit blind I guess by spending the money, building the website and just believing that if we built it they will come. It was a bit slow to start but we did have the bricks and mortar store running which was enough to keep things rolling along,” he said.
“Because there were not many people doing it at the time, when a customer googled something we often came up. It was a bit slow, but we did have orders instantly coming through, especially on products that no one else had really sold on the e-commerce store before, which is why we started to rank on Google quite quickly and is also why we have been able to stay up in the rankings.”
“We did a lot of our business through third party websites which we were able to then push those customers onto our website. Over time the online business completely snowballed and we are very busy now,” Mick said.
While Mick says it does take some time and money to launch an e-commerce business, maintaining the online business is also a challenge.
“I could not have imagined how many mistakes I have made over the years but if I had not had made the mistakes then I just would not have learned how to do it either.”
Having the expertise and background in web design, marketing and product development has been a huge benefit for Mick as well and he notes how difficult it is for an average hardware independent to launch an online business, particularly when it is not easy to combine expertise in hardware with an online presence.
“The problem is a lot of the Mum and Dad retailers who wish to launch an online shop are often burned by web designers who promise them a product that will not be delivered on. It is a funny industry because there are no regulations on web designers and often retailers will hire someone who knows nothing about hardware, or how to sell hardware, or trade supplies. While often they can get you something off the box and show you how to use it, the ongoing work takes a lot of time as well,” he said,
“I probably spend 20 hours a week working on the website still and I have two additional staff members that spend another 20 hours each maintaining the website as well. It is never ending. A lot of it is about putting new products and information on the site and if you do not keep doing these things then it just will not grow,” Mick said.
With 13 staff employed at the store currently, roles include running the retail area, pick and pack area and also maintaining the e-commerce business as well.
Continually marketing the business on-line is also a passion of Mick’s, who has also created a lot of packaging for his own products, while also creating new products to sell on-line.
“I created a new range of stainless-steel products – called Wired Garden. We sell to lots of landscapers, and we were getting many requests for products to make espalier and wire trellis. So I designed some fittings and a system. It really is all about looking around and seeing what is new in the market and trying to fill spaces where products are demanded. Even if it is about getting stock from local suppliers, we just try to expand our range and fill niches where they are.”
“For now, fasteners remain the store’s biggest movers, hence the name, but we also sell a variety of building supplies, landscape products, sealants, adhesives and safety gear,” Mick said.
The Fastener Factory now delivers nationally, via different couriers and Australia Post, with some orders also coming from overseas.
“We have built our own system for all of our deliveries on the website, so the customer just chooses which courier they want and we send the goods out. Products go everywhere from local factories to Christmas Island,” he said.
While The Fastener Factory’s on-line offer is expansive, so too is its instore offer which includes six aisles of stock, as well as a mezzanine floor above for picking and packing and a second factory at the back of the store where the business has also run out of room because it just keeps growing. However, continued hard lockdowns in Melbourne has also pushed people to change the way they purchase products forever.
“The pandemic has forced the guy that might have never bought online to now purchase products online and the guy that was predicted to buy online in a few years time to buy online now. While hard lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney are leaving customers with no choice, there are also those customers who purchase from us because their local suppliers do not have the stock. They Google it and they come to us,” he said.
Thriving throughout the pandemic
Not surprisingly, since the beginning of the pandemic, the online space has grown substantially once again, particularly as many trades and DIYers move to the world of online ordering.
“We have a unique ability to react to change, we are resilient, extremely efficient and very systemised. We are also very different to other fastener specialists because our customers have the ability to grab almost everything they need straight off the shelf (when not in lockdowns), rather than having to ask for bolts at the counter.”
“Our online space would have doubled in the past 18 months. While we did have the retail store open at some stages throughout the years, we have obviously had to shut this down again due to the lockdown in Melbourne. It will be good to have the store open soon,” Mick said.
In an effort to remain ahead of the market, Mick said he is already ordering stock from local and overseas suppliers.
“I continually pre-plan a lot of stock because some of my suppliers might not have the volumes I require, especially on some of the faster moving products. We just want to make sure they are aware of what we will be selling in the next 12 months so we can pre-plan that and then stock from overseas has also ballooned out. What usually takes three months now takes six months,” he said.
While Mick’s customers are rarely anything but trade (around 90 per cent) his customers differentiate themselves because they all source different ranges.
Partnering with HBT
As a member of the HBT group since 2011, The Fastener Factory believes the group has been instrumental in assisting the business to source products at the right price – a crucial factor in building small business.
“Being with HBT has enabled us to get into a lot of markets that we otherwise would not have been able to get into, while being a member has also made it easier to build relationships with suppliers, particularly the ones that you do not deal with too often. I guess HBT keeps them on their toes a bit.”
“The best part of being a part of this group is the friends that I have made. I ring a couple of them once or twice a week and we help each other out because we all have similar mindsets when it comes to business as well.”
“We ring each other up for advice on pays or sourcing a driver. If you did not have access to people with similar businesses or similar situations you would be able to source this important advice,” Mick said.
For now, all of the problems that The Fastener Factory need to resolve are based around the business outgrowing its space.
“We ran out of room, which is why we are planning to open up a big distribution centre hopefully by the end of next year, but it is just hard to commit to anything at the moment. Next year when things settle down, we will open a new distribution warehouse with another showroom. We will keep our current outlet in Oakleigh and look at the viability of other factory outlets. We also intend to market towards many new customers while also targeting repeat business,” Mick said.