Lucerne Valley’s neighborhood approach

Question: What do hardware and groceries have in common?

Answer: Ernest Gommel. The CEO and president of Lucerne Valley Market & Hardware in Lucerne Valley, Calif., believes they’re a great one-two punch when it comes to running a viable business in today’s busy marketplace.

Gommel has been using this combination since he opened Lucerne Valley Market & Hardware in 1975, creating a community center for the population of this rural mining area—which includes about 7,500 people in 400 square miles. In the last few years, the influx of Home Depot, Lowe’s, Costco and other big-box stores into the area—the closest being about 13 miles away—has made the concept seem even more viable.

“To compete against the big boxes in this industry, you need something special to offer,” he said. “People feel they can go into our stores and be able to get anything they want. We even have a deli/cafe were you can get coffee, sandwiches, burgers. The independent needs to be a neighborhood store.”

Gommel’s hardware/grocery roots go back to 1967, when he opened a 2,000-square-foot business in Colton, Calif. By 1975, he had moved about 65 miles to the Lucerne Valley in Southern California’s high desert, about 120 miles northeast of Los Angeles. There, he began with a 7,200-square-foot grocery store—mixing in some hardware and general store products as well—and then doubled the size in 1981.

“At that point, we made it truly a combo hardware/grocery store,” said Gommel, who is a civil engineer and helped design the store himself. “The biggest mistake people make is they try to put two businesses next to each other or put them in one building with a partition between them. We wanted to truly integrate them.”

The current store—with 36,000 square feet of space—was opened in 1991 and also features the grocery/hardware concept. About 12,000 square feet are devoted to hardware and general store type items, and about 27,000 square feet to grocery, which takes up several central aisles and also lines the perimeter of the store.

The store is affiliated with the Do it Best co-op, which is responsive to Gommel’s special needs in the area of electronic checkout, he said.

“Hardware suppliers have electronics that are hardware oriented. They are set to ring and read certain ways, while groceries are different,” he said. “It’s very important to have a supplier who works with us on that.”

Gommel has been with all three co-ops over the years, starting with True Value in the early 1980s, moving over to Ace after seven years and then switching to Do it Best in 2005.

Gommel has set up the business with about 7,000 square feet of core hardware items, catering to a smattering of contractors but mostly the homeowners of the surrounding rural area. The product mix includes paint, wood-burning stoves, well pumps, air conditioning wall units, PVC pipe, bicycle parts, car batteries and auto accessories. Hardware accounts for 15 percent to 20 percent of total store sales.

“The strength of the combination store is that groceries bring in the traffic, and then people buy hardware, too,” he said. “And then the hardware part has its own following, too. In today’s marketplace, it’s more important than ever to give the consumer options and a reason to shop at your store.”