PJ’s H Hardware achieves store hat trick after 35 years

by | May 16, 2022

Timing is everything when it comes to business, and it was perfect timing that led the Prime family to jump at the chance of opening their third store in country Victoria after a rival store came up for sale. 

Business: PJ’s H Hardware Maryborough and PJ’s H Hardware Flagstaff
Manager/Owner: James Prime
Location: Maryborough & Flagstaff, Victoria
Building Group: Hardware & Building Traders (HBT)

PJ’s H Hardware Flagstaff was recently re-branded in HBT’s outstanding black and gold.

H Hardware Maryborough Store Manager, James Prime, says the additional store not only gave the family ample room to stockpile much-needed stock during ongoing shortages, but also cater to trade customers more than ever before.

The Prime family has run several businesses in the country town of Maryborough for many years, beginning with the establishment of the family’s original store, Prime’s Discount Store in 1970 by James’ parents, Geoff and Chloris, with this original store still operating in the town of Maryborough today.

Prime’s Discount Store was first opened by Geoff and Chloris Prime in 1970.

Being a small family business James says he has worked with his parents from a young age.

“I can never remember not coming to work. Mum would just always bring me to the store when I was little. As I got old enough to wheel and carry stuff out for customers this became my first job and my career just grew from there. I helped run a second-hand goods store for mum and dad when I was just 13 years old so I have been in retail for a very long time. Dad is also a chippy by trade so this is where our building offer was born from. Dad could see a need for certain building supplies in Maryborough in the 1970’s and our trade area has grown from there.”

It was in 1988 that the Prime family first ventured into hardware when they bought an existing hardware store and re-branded it to PJ’s Timber & Hardware. It has been a local icon for over 32 years. Although the family was content with how the business was running, storage problems were often a substantial issue until the incredible opportunity to purchase the former Skinner’s Building Supplies store in the nearby town of Flagstaff came up in 2020.

“Skinner’s Building Supplies was also part of the HBT Group for many years and we got along with the owners really well. Although we were competitors there was never any animosity between the two stores. When they decided to move on from the business they offered it to us first and we were happy to take up the opportunity and open our third store located just outside of town in Flagstaff,” James said.

“When we first bought the original hardware store in Maryborough we loved how much room it had, but 30 years on we could do with three times the amount of room that we have on-site. We really needed to do something to alleviate the congestion so when the boys down the road offered us to buy their store, which is on a really large site, we jumped at the chance.”

“Not only does it give us room to store excess stock and push our trade to this store a little bit more but also allows us to focus on our retail offer in Maryborough alongside a smaller trade offer,” James said.

After joining HBT’s specialty hardware division – H Hardware – a couple of years ago, James said he and his family had always planned to banner both stores under the H hardware branding which was finally achieved last year.

“Both hardware stores are now completely re-bannered under the substantial yellow and black branding and also re-named as PJ’s H Hardware Maryborough and PJ’s H Hardware Flagstaff. When our customers drive past both stores now you can easily see that they both look the same as both stores are professionally bannered and the branding really stands out.”

“The new branding identifies us and establishes us as a hardware store. Before we re-branded you could easily drive past PJ’s Hardware a thousand times and you still might not know what our offer is. But this has now all changed and we are easily identifiable,” he said.

When asked if there was enough demand in the area to warrant two hardware stores operating under the same banner James said this was definitely the case, particularly because the purchase of the third store has also now resolved on-going storage issues. 

PJ’s H Hardware sets itself apart from its competitors by being totally independent and choosing only products that suit the local area and its customers.

Local competition

Local competition consists of a well-known, extensive Mitre 10 store in town, however James believes that Mitre 10 has its own demographic of customers and there are certain people that are drawn to this type of store and will always go there. 

“Then there is a whole other demographic who want to walk into our shop because they believe they might get a better insight into the product they are purchasing or a better delivery service because they know we base our business around an old school style of retailing. While there are trades that float between the two of us, we have our own customer demographic and they appreciate what we do so they just keep coming back,” he said.

“Our stores are set apart from our competitors because of how well we look after our people. While I agree that price is an issue for some of our customers, it certainly is not the only issue when it comes to hardware because the exceptional service will always keep our customers coming in the door. Having stock is also so important which is why we stock quite heavy to make sure we have got everything our customers need. Maintaining good staff is also really important. Maintaining price, stock and good staff has not been easy throughout the pandemic but it is not impossible and you just have to learn to go with it.”

“We are also totally independent so we have the ability to choose products that suit our local area and our customers. It does not matter which brand it is or what the deal is, if this is what our customers want, that is what they will get. This is the great thing about HBT. You still run the store the way you want to run it, you just use the deals and the group to your advantage,” James said.

Like most Australian hardware independents, uplift in housing developments and DIY projects within the local area since the pandemic has also considerably boosted activity in-store according to James. 

“In saying this our business was also going really well pre-COVID. In March 2020 we were still very busy within the business but obviously, as soon as the pandemic hit everyone went crazy with their DIY projects. We have also had a few good years within the rural sector so all of the local farmers are reasonably flush at the moment which is great for our business as well.”

Although James says there were not a lot of changes required within the business throughout the pandemic, he did say the biggest challenge was coping with the unexpected demand from customers. 

“We only had about three or four COVID cases in the area throughout the lockdowns so we were very lucky to not have a lot of restrictions placed on us, apart from masks and customers being required to sign into in the store. Being a country store means that a lot of our customer base prefers shopping in-store rather than online, but that is just one of the beauties of living in
the bush.”

While the family has deliberately tried to push more trade out to the H Hardware Flagstaff store, H Hardware Maryborough is transferring to a more retail offer combined with a modest trade offer so builders can go to either store for their building products.

“The Maryborough store was once 60 per cent DIY and 40 per cent trade but over time this site has transformed to 70 per cent DIY and 30 per cent trade. H Hardware Flagstaff is much more trade-orientated with an 80 trade and 20 per cent DIY split so we have definitely swayed more of our trade out there.”

“We are deliberately trying to sway the number this way because the Flagstaff store is perfectly geared to cater to the trade. There is so much room out there to store things, collate orders, hold the stock levels that you need. This is quite different at the Maryborough store because customers often just want two bags of cement and a stick of timber to be dropped at their house so they can tackle their latest project,” James said.

HBT Group

Re-branding both stores to the H Hardware bannering is just one of the many benefits that come with being part of the HBT group, James says.

“Another huge advantage of being part of the group is gaining access to companies and products that we might have never known about or seen until it is advertised in a Bunnings or a Mitre 10 catalogue. HBT accesses new and upcoming suppliers quickly and sends us an email to ensure we are aware of a new supplier and their products,” he said.

“An example of this was the recent implementation of our stock food, dog and cat food which have all done exceptionally well in recent months. We never would have thought of implementing these products in-store if HBT had not suggested it. It seems like everyone bought a pet throughout the pandemic so implementing these products in-store ensures a different following of customers which is great for business.”

“When you run isolated country stores, being part of HBT and having access to this type of information is priceless. HBT pushes hard to make sure we have access to these suppliers and we get in touch to source a decent price. HBT’s buying power is also exceptional along with the rebates that come with this,” he said.

Future plans

For now James says he has a number of plans in place including on-going upgrades to Maryborough H Hardware, and new racking to be implemented to make the store safer and products more accessible.

“We will make slow changes as we keep trading including fixing up the external view that matches the new paint and upgrading fences. We will eventually tackle an internal re-fit of the Flagstaff store to get the hardware offering where it needs to be while also increasing our range of good quality trade products so tradies can easily source all the tools that they need.”

“We are just a country store and we upgrade bit by bit. When the money comes in, we bang them through and just keep working at it. We are pretty old school and this is probably some of the charm that keeps our customers coming now and for many years to come,” James said. 

PJ’s H Hardware founder Geoff Prime – pictured with wife Chloris – passed away last month.

Sadly, at the time of writing, James’ father Geoff passed away after a prolonged illness. Geoff’s career in hardware retailing spanned an incredible 50 years and he was well-regarded throughout the industry. Geoff and wife Chloris would have celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary next month. Geoff was 78 at the time of his passing.