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Ace Celebrates 100 Years, Announces New Programs at Spring 2024 Convention

At the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas, the General Session welcomed thousands of Ace retailers to kick off the co-op’s celebration of its 100-year anniversary.

Ace Hardware kicked off its celebration of 100 years in business during the Spring 2024 Convention in Dallas March 12-14 with new program announcements and a caution from President CEO John Venhuizen not to become complacent.

Leaning into the sports analogy of playing to win instead of playing not to lose, Venhuizenurged the co-op’s retailers to be aggressive and pursue new opportunities to capture more market share during his remarks at the General Session in the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center.  

With screens behind him flashing inspirational sports movie scenes, Venhuizensaid: “It is amazing, incredibly frustrating to me when any team or any business starts to become complacent with success, it’s just so stupid. It is a leading indicator of declining and we constantly see it.”

Venhuizen illustrated this point with recent trends within the co-op: “We just completed our third year in a row of declining transactions. Third year in a row, less people came into the stores. We had same-store sales decline fractionally last year. That’s the first time we’ve seen that point in 15 years, and it’s not okay. It is not acceptable.”

Venhuizen said that such small, successive declines ultimately lead to a profit erosion and that the co-op shouldn’t “play not to lose.”

Throughout the Ace Spring 2024 Convention, the show floor remained lively with demonstrations and information sessions as thousands of retailers viewed new products and visited vendors. 

During his address, Venhuizen also cited several of the co-op’s success stories, such as Ace stores now having 28 percent return on equity and 87 percent of customers giving Ace stores a review of a five out of five.

Venhuizen encouraged retailers to seize opportunities in the customer, pro contractor and business-to-business segments of the marketplace.

Venhuizen said the average Ace store should be earning about $4 million per year. To reach that goal, Verstegen pointed to the about 45 million multi-family, residential properties as an area where Ace is “not paying enough attention.” The co-op’s CEO also said Ace will be pursuing HVAC, plumbing, electrical and residential home preservation markets aggressively to expand more into that potential $35 billion market. Similar to Venhuizen’s remarks during the Fall 2023 Convention, the do-it-for-me market could represent significant growth for Ace. Venhuizen also previewed some of the do-it-for-me programs Ace is testing such as plumbing and painting, characterizing both as being in the testing phase.

Venhuizen concluded his General Session presentation to Ace retailers by looking to the future: “We’re not just a player in the hardware industry. We have the hope of the hardware industry. We exist to serve others. We’re going to use our success as a springboard to be significant in the communities we serve. Ace is the hope of the hardware business and our future life, primarily in the hands of our local leaders like you.”

Also as part of his remarks, Venhuizen thanked Brett Stephenson, Ace’s chairman of the board, for his service to the co-op. In May, Stephenson will step down as chairman, and Steve Burggraf, owner of 10 Ace stores in Minnesota and North Dakota, will assume that role.

The expanded pet area was one of the most popular stops for retailers at the Ace Spring 2024 Convention, especially when adoptable puppies are around. 

Playbook Success, Potential for Expansion

Opening the General Session, Andy Enright, Ace’s vice president, retail development and strategy, provided an overview of the consumer market and cited opportunities for Ace retailers to seize market share.

Enright shared the story of RT Ace Hardware in Broken Bow, Neb., which was purchased by Joe and Liz Franssen in November 2021. The store has more than doubled sales, and in 2024, it is up another 30 percent, according to Enright, who credited the store’s success to the Franssens’ hard work and following the Ace Pinnacle Playbook. The couple invested in and maintained the discovery mix and were diligent about staying in stock, almost doubling the store’s inventory depth. Enright also pointed to employee training and pursuing business-to-business sales, which have grown by $200,000 in the past year, as other reasons for the store’s success.

Because of the couple’s track record at their Broken Bow location, they are opening another Ace store in Gothenburg, Neb.

“Even though we’re 100 years old and have over 5,000 stores domestically now, there is still room for thousands of additional Ace hardware stores,” Enright said. “There are thousands of open development areas for new stores based on the analytics that we have, and it has never been better.”

To pursue such expansion, Enright cited the need for additional leaders. To create a pool of new leaders, Enright said Ace is partnering with Franklin Covey, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based management consulting company, to develop a leadership training program.

Convention goers in the Texas spirit donned cowboy hats and saw live demonstrations, such as this one at the Beyond Paint booth.

Marketing to Emphasize Customer Service, Traffic-Driving Initiatives

As part of the General Session, Kim Lefko, senior vice president and chief marketing officer, shared plans for the co-op’s new marketing initiatives, including an inventory assessment program, which will help ensure inventory records are accurate and reflect in-stock products. Such accurate inventory enables consumers to know that the products are in Ace stores after searching for them online, according to Lefko.

Another marketing program Lefko shares is called the Ace Article Engine, a free-to-retailers digital platform that will create short articles that will include information about in-store products, store photos and information about store owners and managers. The program has been tested as a pilot program in 300 stores with good reviews and is ready to be scaled to all Ace retailers, Lefko said during her remarks.

Lefko outlined how marketing efforts will continue to be centered around Ace’s customer service. “The competition is excited to announce that they have robots and apps that direct you to the aisle and self-checkout at the end,” Lefko said. “That’s what we’re up against and that’s not us.”

Lefko cited a recent study of 2,500 stores that watched 500,000 customers and showed that customers who were offered basic help spent $20 more in the store, and customers who were offered more meaningful help spent $50 to $60 more. Lefko advocated for Ace’s training programs to increase such in-store, customer engagement.

“Get your associates trained, confident, knowledgeable and convicted,” she said. “It’ll make a profound difference to your engagement, your financials, and your retention.”

As another aspect of Ace’s marketing effort, Lefko touted the Ace Rewards program and mobile app, citing that mobile app users visit Ace stores more often and spend more than customers who don’t utilize the app.

As part of Ace’s celebration of its 100-year anniversary, the co-op produced 100 videos called Heartware Stories about Ace retailers giving back to their communities. Lefko said that in conjunction with those videos a related docuseries will air on three streaming networks later this year.

Also, during her General Session presentation, Lefko revealed that the Grammy Award-winning Zac Brown Band will perform at Ace’s Fall Convention in Chicago, August 8-10.

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