When televised sporting events seem like marketing vehicles for the big home-improvement chains, how does the small, independently owned neighborhood hardware store compete?
“We try to stay on top of our product knowledge,” Phil Cronin said. “We try to offer better customer service. Because we are a smaller store we can be a lot more hands-on with the customer. We can take time to walk them through a project.”
Cronin has managed Vernon Village True Value in southeast Cedar Rapids for 16 years. The store is owned by Doug and Karen Christner of Coralville. Cronin said True Value’s role as a purchasing cooperative for independent stores — the brand isn’t a franchise or chain — offers advantages, too.
“We have some flexibility as a co-op,” he said. “We have our True Value warehouse, but we still have other suppliers we can go direct to. Some of the big-box stores are locked into ordering just what’s available through their warehouse. We can order through other vendors.”
In its 28 years at the same location, the store has built an identity with neighborhood homeowners.
“I would guess our business is 80 percent homeowners, 20 percent commercial,” Cronin said. “We do get a lot of landscape guys and contractors, but our primary business is the homeowners.”
It helps to develop a niche in a popular interest, too. In this case, it’s Weber barbecue grills. The store is a warranty and service center for that brand, offering grill assembly and delivery.
“We’re one of the bigger dealers in the area,” Cronin said. “Because we’re independently owned, we have the option to say we don’t want to carry the other ones. I always call myself a Weber snob.”
Another specialty niche: the store’s rental section.
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“There wasn’t really a rental store in this area,” Cronin said. “We were ready to get into it, and most of it is really geared toward homeowner lawn care and maintenance.”
With entire TV networks dedicated to so-it-yourself home improvement, Cronin and his staff have to keep up.
“Sometimes you have to stay a little ahead of the customer,” he said. “When I first started, even though it was only 16 years ago, Google wasn’t a big deal, YouTube and all of that. Now, customers are coming in with a lot of product knowledge and a lot of ideas. You have to be on top of your game.”
And know when to intervene.
“There are a lot of things out there that aren’t quite up to code or aren’t quite the best way to do things,” Cronin said. “You’ve got to combat what they’ve learned on the internet and make sure they’re not doing something that’s going to create problems down the road.”
The part-time staff, a mix of teenagers and retired homeowners, works well together.
“Being a smaller store, the kids can be exposed to all of it, as opposed to just their department at a big store,” Cronin said. The younger employees learn quickly as they follow the more experienced ones as they advise customers.
“People and customers start saying, ‘Wait, this kid knows what he’s doing,’” he said. “We get a lot of people come in and ask for the kid. It’s nice that we can get that rapport.”
That helps Cronin maintain the store’s competitive edge.
“We’re always learning something here,” he said. “There’s always something new, or someone comes in with a unique challenge or project. ... We get to work through some things.”
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AT A GLANCE
l Owner: Doug and Karen Christner
l Manager: Phil Cronin
l Business: Vernon Village True Value Hardware
l Address: 3501 Mount Vernon Rd. SE, Cedar Rapids
l Phone: (319) 362-8637
l Website: truevalue.com/vernonvillage