sprints out of the gate

It’s been nearly two months since Chicago-based True Value launched its new e-commerce site, and in that time the hardware co-op has seen traffic to triple.

The new site already features more than 22,000 SKUs of its core assortments in accordance with its Destination True Value format. 

This isn’t the company’s first foray into the world of e-commerce. True Value launched a retail website in early 2000, but the early version acted, to a large extent, independently of the member stores. The result was an online retailer that seemed to be competing with its brick-and-mortar counterparts — ruffling feathers in the process. Since then, the company has been slow to jump back into e-commerce, opting to focus on building its core member stores while researching and developing an e-commerce plan that would help drive member sales.

One of the main features of the new site — and probably the key strategic idea behind the new — has been the site’s ship-to-store option, which offers free shipping to the customer’s local True Value store. The hardware co-op said that 79% of customers who shop on choose this ship-to-store option.

“The reason we designed the site was to drive traffic into our stores,” said Carol Wentworth, True Value VP marketing. “We know the bulk of the activity that happens online in home improvement is really a lot of research and not a lot of buying. But we wanted to have the presence to facilitate the research around all the products we carry and drive traffic into our stores.”

Wentworth said True Value looked at the sales statistics of companies like Lowe’s, Home Depot and Ace and found that, on average, they were only doing about 0.5% of their overall sales online, according to True Value’s research.

“So 99.5% of their volume is flowing through brick-and-mortar — not purchased online,” she said. 

To date, the company has seen more than 1,500 retail members sign up to receive ship-to-store items, and it expects 2,000 by spring.

One of the retailers onboard is Alan Bryant, owner of True Value Home Center in Oakhurst, Calif. Bryant said he anticipated a slow ramp-up to online sales and hadn’t even begun putting up the signage and point-of-purchase kits provided to him from the corporate office when the first orders began coming in.

“That kind of kicked us in the rear,” he said. “And it let us know we’d better get to this because people are already finding out about the website without us at the store level doing any work.”

Bryant’s 30,000-sq.-ft. hardware store carries about 45,000 SKUs. The additional assortment online increases the store’s value proposition and customer service, he said. Bryant said he’s received orders from online sales on everything from power tools to coffee filters. 

“It turns out it was [a] pretty hard-to-find filter, and we don’t normally stock it, but a customer found it on the site,” he said.

It’s still early in the rollout of the site, but Bryant said feedback from new online customers has been positive. Customers are kept in the loop about their order once it is placed, and they receive an e-mail alert when their order is available at their local store.

“It looks like True Value took their time to put together a program that was well thought out, and I’m getting the benefit of that,” he said. “When the product comes in, it’s just like it’s supposed to be. It’s really well marked, and then receiving the product on our online portal is really simple.” 

There are, however, certain complications for any e-commerce model involving a geographically diverse group of independent owners joined by a co-operative e-commerce site. Price continuity, for instance, is one of them. According to Bryant, some True Value retailer members in his area have been slow to jump on the e-commerce bandwagon over concerns about pricing, though Bryant doesn’t see it as a problem.

“It’s relatively common that the online price on high-profile items is less expensive,” he said. “I didn’t think that it would be a problem with the customer, as long as we honored that price in the store,” he said.

For the co-op’s part, Wentworth said the company took price continuity into consideration when it priced its online items. True Value looked at the most common practices across retailers and also its guidance to retailers on the highly visible, highly competitive products. 

“We understand that each store is independently owned and operated and that they have the freedom to price as they wish to be competitive in their marketplace, and so we’ve given them some guidance on how to handle gaps between the online price and the in-store price,” Wentworth said.

Another challenge to work out is the right amount of SKUs to make available through Some members, including Bryant, would like to see a soup-to-nuts approach — all 65,000 SKUs instead of the limited 22,000 the site currently offers.

“I’m a little concerned that people will go to and look for a product and, if they can’t find it there, assume that True Value can’t provide them the product,” he said.

Lisa Fortuna, director of e-commerce, said the site’s assortment is a work in progress. True Value plans to assess its online offerings over the next year in order to cater to what its customers are looking for. 

“Over time we’re going to learn more about our customer and what they’re searching for online, so that may be adjusted in the future. But really the goal was to kind of show what is available in our stores,” she said.

Bryant said his concerns are minor. In general, the California hardware retailer sees the site as a tool to bring new customers into his store.

“I see it as nothing but positive,” he said. “It’s another way to entice customers to True Value and make them more aware of the True Value brand, and give them another reason to get them in our store. I’m very enthusiastic about it.” e