Thinking big

In what major metropolitan area does the nation’s largest independent hardware store call home?

One would think New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. One would be wrong.

The answer is Hartville, Ohio. And if you haven’t been there recently, you now have a valid professional excuse to make the trip. That’s because Hartville Hardware is not only one of the most interesting experiments in destination retailing of any stripe, it’s the “in” destination for home channel marketers, manufacturers, competitors and distributors to learn how imagination and sheer space can alter the perception of home improvement retailing.

At 305,000 sq. ft. total and 245,000 sq. ft. of retail space, Hartville Hardware, a Do it Best member since 2001, describes itself as the largest independent hardware store in the country.

Inside the massive seven-acre facility, customers find a log cabin, a drive-through lumberyard, a farm and pet area, and a fully constructed home — an “idea house” of all-American-made products.

Wayne Miller is the VP of Hartville Hardware and the grandson of the family business’ founder. Home Channel News asked him if a small town like Hartville could support the nation’s biggest independent home improvement store.

“I guess we’ll find out,” he said. He quickly added several reasons to be optimistic. First, Hartville, Ohio, may be small. But it’s conveniently located between Akron and Canton. “There are a lot of people within 20 miles of us,” Miller said.

But more than that, the new store — it opened its doors in April 2012 — operates in the same proximity as the Miller family’s restaurant, banquet hall and indoor/outdoor flea market (marketplace.)

“We kind of say, ‘Make a day out of it,’ ” Miller said. And people have listened. Since the move and conversion from a business that measured about 100,000 sq. ft., sales are up more than 30%, he said.

Compared with Home Depot or Lowe’s, Miller said Hartville has more products (about 75,000) in deeper categories — housewares, for instance, farm and pet, and a large outdoor-power-equipment store. “We also have our technicians here, which they don’t,” he said.

The drive-through lumberyard was designed by Portland, Maine-based Johnson Design Services to maximize convenience and efficiency.

The DIY customer accounts for about 75% of the business, with 25% from the pro.

The centerpiece and feature point of the store is probably the idea house, an 1,850-sq.-ft. home constructed from all-USA-made products — or almost all. Miller said the idea for the house came after they learned of a builder’s efforts to use all USA products. “We thought: ‘Why don’t we try to do that?’ ”

The idea house shows the customer products made in the USA, and also available and in-stock at Hartville Hardware, he said.

The idea house “is the Cabela’s Mountain of Hartville Hardware,” said marketing manager Christa Domer, referring to the elaborate taxidermy display and photo opportunity generally found at the sporting goods retailer. “We just wanted to show people that you can do this in your home.”

According to Miller, the family studied several top-notch home improvement retailers before launching their Hartville mega store. “We spent four or five years traveling around the country looking at great retailers out there,” he said.

Among them: Stine Lumber of Louisiana, Builders Warehouse in Nebraska, and Jerry’s Home Center of Oregon.

Wayne’s brother Howard is president of the family business, which originated as an auction barn back in 1939. The company entered home improvement in 1972. So far, Miller said the store is exceeding expectations. “We ended up having to hire more people than we had originally planned,” Miller said.

But successful retail is a never-ending journey. “After 40 years on the old store, we never had it perfect,” Miller said. “It will probably take us more than a year to get this one perfect.”