The A-C-E’s of successful retailing

A reputation for customer service doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. At the Oak Brook, Ill., headquarters of Ace Hardware Corp., the topic is a high priority for John Venhuizen, VP retail and business development.

In an interview with Home Channel News, Venhuizen shared corporate ideas about ideal store size (about 9,000 sq. ft.), consistency across the brand (but not cookie-cutter stores), and today’s selling environment (“It’s a fistfight.”). Here are highlights from the interview:

HCN: What can the co-op do to help the stores help customers?

John Venhuizen: Training is paramount. We kind of look at the training component in three ways. We have to get the associate to be engaged; our associates need to know what moves the needle in the store like the owner does. Two is: They then have to be inspired and motivated. Simply put, they have to actually care. You can be the best basketball player in the world with all the talent and tools, but if you don’t actually want to win, you’re not a great teammate. And the last component is: They’ve got to be knowledgeable.

HCN: And what does the training look like to get there?

Venhuizen: The delivery mechanisms range from instructor-led courses where we’ll send plumbing and electrical specialists out to the stores for training for their staff to online webinars. We also invested in what we call “The Ace Learning Place,” where our stores can dial in through the Internet, and there’s a massive library of training curriculum.

HCN: Ace is on the door, Ace is in the brand, but, of course, you have individual owners. Does it matter to you that the customer thinks of Ace as a chain? And how important is it to be consistent from store to store?

Venhuizen: Sometimes consistency gets confused with the other “C” word, which is “cookie-cutter,” and that’s the last thing we’re trying to be. There is something, because you carry A-C-E on your building, that the consumer is going to expect, and that has to be consistent.

HCN: What are the keys?

Venhuizen: They expect you to have a broad product assortment with in-stock position that’s very strong. You’ve got to be consistent on that, and we help our stores with that through the category management process. You have to own helpfulness, and you have to own convenience. So, the consistency has to be in what the customer expects, which is around the product assortment, the shopping experience and the great customer service they [know they’ll] get from an Ace store.

HCN: And you’ve stated that one of your strengths is the model of individual ownership under a co-op.

Venhuizen: Wrapped around all of that, we’d say, is the entrepreneurial flair that the individual owner knows and brings to their local market, and that can take a lot of varieties of shapes and sizes, and we encourage it.

HCN: What can you say are similarities among the really high-performance Ace stores? What are the good ones doing?

Venhuizen: I would say it’s the enthusiasm of the leader that often carries the day, and so what we see in our best owners is, even in the face of adversity and difficult and uncertain times, their attitude is outstanding—that goes down into their staff, and that impacts the way they hit the market.

We can say several other things. First is: Yes, they’ve done the table stakes. They’ve weeded out of their business the nice-to-have expenses because there’s no room for that anymore.

Secondly, as hard as it is—because when you need to manage cash, the inventory is often the first thing that goes—they’re making sure that their in-stock position is strong and that the inventory levels are ready to support the customers that come in the store.

Thirdly, they have an unwavering commitment to be the Helpful Place. That’s our differentiator, and they’re committed to it.

HCN: So success through service is a winning formula?

Venhuizen: That’s not to say these aren’t tough times for a lot of folks. It’s a fistfight out there to attract a very budget-consious consumer right now, so I don’t mean to imply that everything is all rosy. It’s good to be in the fix, repair and replace business when times are tough, right? But you see some pockets of brilliance out there, and we’re trying to figure out what they’re doing and share that with the rest.