Best New Store Under 20,000 sq. ft. — University Ace Hardware
Walter Toole has been in the hardware business for more than 35 years and is a life-long hardware guy. He is a past president of the National Retail Hardware Association and his store in Winter Garden, Fla., was Ace’s first “Store of the Future” in the state. He got into the business when he and his wife Patty bought Bray Hardware in Winter Garden in 1983. This store dates back to 1906, which makes it a member of The Hardware Connection Century Club.
University Ace Hardware in Oviedo, Fla., was previously a Walgreens until Walter and his team took over and began transforming the building into the perfect hardware store. “We’re fix-it, repair stores and I saw a building with the perfect layout for a hardware store,” Walter says.
The team started the transition with an LED conversion, repainted inside and out, polished concrete floors, turned the pharmacy into the back room and converted the photo center into the Stihl department.
When University Ace Hardware opened in June 2017 it represented the 10th store for Walter and Toole’s Ace Hardware. Walter’s success has been fueled by an incessant drive to run the best hardware stores in Florida.
His partner, Bill Asma, has been with him for nine of the stores. Bill is a lawyer who takes a more passive role in the business, however, his son Neil is extremely active as the general manager. Neil is Walter’s second in command and is poised to take over the business when Walter retires. Walter and Patty’s son, Thomas, takes an active role in the merchandising side of the business, ensuring high standards are maintained. Store manager Dan Tanner plays an important role at Oviedo to keep customer service and inventory levels up to expectation.
NICHES DRIVE TRAFFIC
The 12,000-square-foot store features a customer-friendly layout and some of the best decor, finishes and merchandising in the industry.
Understanding the ever-evolving retail landscape, Walter and his team knew how important it was to have the right merchandise. “Ace has always been good with core departments and they have good core layouts,” Walter says. “We used their new decor package, which we’ve incorporated into all our stores in the last two years.”
Not only are the shelves bulging with core hardware, the sales floor is filled with niches to excite customers. The large grilling area features Big Green Egg, Traeger and Weber grills and accessories, next to a dominant assortment of Stihl outdoor power equipment. They also carry an expanded assortment of bird, fishing tackle, fishing rods and live bait, along with the premium Benjamin Moore paint brand.
“All those premium brands are important to us, and we are elite dealers in all those. We continually meet with those vendors to see how we can partner and do a better job selling,” Walter says.
Customers encounter a store filled with inventory and exceptional customer service that comes from a commitment to training. Walter takes full advantage of the Ace training programs, and he brings in up to 20 people from all of his stores to their Winter Garden location for one-on-one training with vendors.
“We’re known for our service. A customer can always get a product somewhere else, but we will always be in stock and we’re going to service DIY and B2B customers better than anyone,” says Walter, who adds that each store has to count its in-stock position twice a week and report all out of stocks to management.
The Oviedo store reached Ace’s Platinum level during the first year—even though they only had five months to do it. The following year, they achieved Pinnacle level performance—Ace’s highest level. During their first year, they significantly outperformed Ace’s expectations and proforma plan.
Walter and his team embrace customer demands around delivery, understanding it is one of the ways the store delivers on a convenience promise to customers. They participate in Ace’s in-store pickup program and tout the availability of online delivery. “While the logistics can be challenging, we know the value of staying relevant within the community,” Walter says.
They are also a pilot program for Stihl power equipment delivery. The customer does not have to come in the store to buy it. They order it online; University Ace delivers an assembled piece and starts it on site.
The amount and diversity of inventory plays a role in University Ace’s dedication to commercial sales and servicing the community. Part of the appeal to bring in Benjamin Moore was to have access to Ultra Spec. This brand allows them the opportunity to compete head to head with surrounding businesses to capture commercial paint sales. They have a commercial paint salesman on the road promoting this initiative. They also fulfill the plumbing parts and other hardware needs of the University of Central Florida.
Toole’s Ace has minivans and two trucks to make deliveries, with four outside salesmen to cover an extensive trade area. “We have to continue to get better at B2B by selling more to small and mid-size customers,” Walter explains. “We have 10 stores, so we can deliver the same day. If one store doesn’t have it, another of our stores probably does.”
All 10 Toole’s Ace stores support the communities they serve. University Ace works with several organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Haggerty High School and the Kiwanis Club, and they donate products to the University of Central Florida’s engineering department and Concrete Canoe team. Programs and monetary donations are used to support the Children’s Miracle Network.
“Any time you get an award like this you feel pretty special,” says Walter. “It means that they like what you did. It’s a testament not only to me and Patty, but to my staff, to Neal, my son Thomas and to Ace Hardware.”