By Chris Jensen
Aubuchon Hardware was founded in 1908, so this is not their first pandemic and definitely not the first crisis the Century Club retailer has faced.
“We’re a fourth-generation, family-owned private business and there has been a remarkable tradition handed down from my great-grandfather to me,” says President Will Aubuchon IV, one of seven family members in senior roles. “We are all committed to leaving things better than we found them and it’s important to do things the right way. There is a resilient culture in the family—we are in it for the long haul.”
The company operates 104 Aubuchon Hardware stores in five New England states plus upstate New York, so they have a lot of different communities to serve during challenging times.
Aubuchon drafted a special message and recorded a video to explain the company’s COVID-19 response, offering encouragement through the difficult times and emphasizing their focus on helping employees and customers. He also shared many more messages internally with their 1,500 employees such as this video thanking them for their dedicated effort.
“It was quite scary in those early days, because so much was unknown and the communities were relying on us as an essential business,” Aubuchon recalls. “Our key message was to stand behind our employees. Safety is our number one priority, because the community depended on it. We rallied around doing important work in our stores and following our core values of taking care of each other.”
Like all retailers, Aubuchon developed new safety protocols without a playbook and then had to roll those out to 104 stores. “We installed hand sanitizer stations for each store at the beginning at a huge cost. We had to get PPE, gloves, safety glasses, even face shields, making a huge investment in masks for all employees,” he explains.
They developed procedures for social distancing and wiping down all surfaces. They invested in an outside cleaning service for all stores seven days a week, which led to deep cleaning in the stores. To simplify the challenge of operating in so many different towns and states, they followed the most stringent requirements and enforced company-wide wearing of masks and temperature checks, urging associates to stay home when sick.
Their focus on safety has paid off, according to Aubuchon, who reports that so far they have only had one positive case.
Maintaining full staffing was definitely a big issue at the beginning. “We erred on the side of caution initially. We were proactive at reducing store hours and hired temp positions to support team members dealing with the extra demand,” Aubuchon says, adding that they are not at full staff yet but are back to regular hours.
One of the first goals was to get employees to use their paid time off, recognizing that they were starting a marathon crisis. The company also more than tripled what they would normally pay out for recognition pay bonuses. “It is very difficult to be a hardware store employee this year due to the virus concerns. Our stores are a place where you feel supported. We’re in this together—that’s a core value,” Aubuchon says.
At the beginning, pandemic-driven unknowns quickly turned into a windfall for Aubuchon Hardware. “So many people and businesses are suffering—there are winners and losers—but the independent hardware channel has been on the winning side,” Aubuchon notes.
“Sales are strong, especially lawn and garden and paint,” he adds. “We’ve had a very significant increase in average ticket size and a meaningful increase in customer count, which has been hard to come by. When you have both in a positive trend it produces significant gain.”
Aubuchon Hardware has invested heavily in e-commerce for many years, so they were somewhat prepared for the tremendous surge in web traffic and BOPIS (buy online pickup in store). “Our web revenue is up 1,500 percent for the year,” Aubuchon says. “We’re launching contactless curbside service, so customers can just check in online when they arrive without calling.”
Aubuchon points out that the company handled its own distribution for 90 years, getting out of operating a warehouse a few years ago. “Through this pandemic, it’s been a challenge for all distributors to keep goods flowing and we didn’t have to wrestle with that,” he says. We would’ve been lower on the totem pole with vendors.”
He adds, “Orgill is a great partner. When we were in distribution, they were always very responsive if we had supply challenges. We grew significantly in our relationship. Orgill offers a lot of innovative and forward-looking programs.”
GIVING BACK TO COMMUNITIES
The Aubuchon Foundation was started in 2008 by the third generation of the family. “We tip our hat to our vendors and wholesale partners for supporting us this year despite not being able to have our annual golf tournament. We can still make a meaningful difference with our support,” Aubuchon says.
In 2019, the company started challenge grants. Each store would pick a local nonprofit to support and challenge customers to join the cause, with the Foundation matching donations up to $5,000. “Customers were very generous and we ended up donating $105,000 to local charities,” he says.
In 2020, they made a proactive decision to support five different COVID-19 relief funds and donated over $100,000 to those relief funds throughout the various communities they serve in the Northeast.
“Winning the Beacon Award means a lot and is a great honor for the whole team,” says Aubuchon. “The award is in recognition for all our dedicated employees who answered the call to serve the communities we operate in during challenging times. On behalf of our entire team, we want to thank The Hardware Connection and the sponsors for this award.”