By Doug Donaldson
Intown Ace Hardware in Decatur, Ga., has a simple business motto: Customers drive business decisions. Co-owner Tony Powers connects with customers to be out front of trends.
“With new products, we like being an early adopter,” Powers says. “If we’re making purchasing decisions based on a new trend in trade magazines, it’s too late. We like to jump on a new product or trend before the market is saturated.”
One example: A customer asked if the store could carry Bee’s Wax Polish. “I’d never heard of it, but one of the unique things is that it cleans just about anything—leather, stainless steel, granite, mirrors,” Powers says. “It’s a really good seller, and we’d never have heard about it without a customer mentioning it.”
Another example: A customer asked if Intown Ace could stock Wicked Good Charcoal, which is a natural, hardwood charcoal made by a company in Maine. True to the store’s credo of being ahead of the curve, Wicked Good Charcoal is now stocked in the Ace warehouse.
Because of the store’s customer-centric approach, community-based assortment planning and some eye-catching decorations like a baseball card collection above the key-cutting counter, Intown Ace Hardware was named one of Ace’s “Coolest Hardware Stores on the Planet” in 2012.
Powers began working at Intown Ace the second week of 1985 as a part-time job while earning a marketing degree at the University of Georgia. Now, even though he is now a co-owner, staff at the store joke that Powers has the longest-running, part-time job in the world.
Ace Is the Place for…Underwear
During its three-plus decades of existence, Intown Ace Hardware has undergone significant transformation. When Powers started his part-time job, the store sold a lot more building materials. However, commodities such as 2x4s provided low margins, constant culling of warped boards and demands to keep up with deliveries.
In 1996, the store switched distributors and converted from True Value to Ace. Powers and his business partner, Dave Jones, found that Ace offered critical, yet positive, advice on how to improve the store’s lighting, layout and inventory. Also, Ace provided data about how their store stacked up against peer stores. Powers believes that information enabled better decision-making and a way to help fight growing big-box competition. Today, five Home Depot stores are within a 20-minute drive of Intown Ace.
“The best decision I’ve made as a hardware retailer has been switching to Ace, hands down,” Powers says. “And following the advice they gave at the time of the switch. If we didn’t switch, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are now.”
Part of the store’s transformation meant changing to appeal to women, adding new niches, redesigning the store layout and ensuring shoppers walked through wide, well-lit aisles.
“We felt that Ace would take the store to the next level and help us with what we needed to be doing,” Powers says. “Ace helped develop three or four niches to define who we are.”
Those newly pumped-up niches included lawn and garden, patio furniture, grilling, gifts and housewares. Over the past two decades, the store has dived even deeper into its niches, stocking multiple lines. For example, in the grilling department, the store offers extensive lines of Weber, Traeger and Big Green Egg. In housewares, the store stocks multiple lines of candles and offers 12 feet of dishtowels.
“We have more dishtowels than anybody in Atlanta,” Powers says.
And then there is women’s underwear.
“Yes, we carry a line of organic, bamboo women’s underwear,” Powers says. “We sent some to the CEO and COO of Ace and they thought it was hilarious. It’s been on The Today Show and is now one of the top lines of women’s underwear.”
Crafting a Unique Identity
Whether it is stocking bamboo women’s underwear or Big Green Egg accessories, 13,000-square-foot Intown Ace Hardware has defined its place in the marketplace.
The store’s promotions, such as Ladies Night events, also help distinguish its identity. For its anniversary sales, the store offers the same percentage off (on almost everything in the store) as the store’s age. This December, that means customers shopping during the anniversary sale will get 36 percent off their purchases.
About 80 percent of the store’s customers are do-it-yourselfers. The store recently added another 3,000 square feet to its outdoor garden center.
Much of the store’s character is reflected through its 34 employees.
“I tell all my employees, past or present, that nothing was handed to me just because I showed up to work,” Powers says. “I have a hard work ethic each and every day. My first summer here, I sold lumber and building materials, carrying sheetrock up stairs in 100-degree heat. I urge employees to be willing to learn and put the time in.”
Powers says the store just reflects its community. Decatur is about seven miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, close to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Intown Ace’s neighborhood features many homes built in the 1920s and 1930s, and the region has seen a tremendous amount of growth in the past decade. Powers grew up in Decatur, his daughters were raised in the city and have worked in the store, too. Now, he lives just a block away from the store.
Powers used to plan his college schedule around his hours at the hardware store. He commuted to and from Athens (70 miles each way) to continue working at the store while finishing his degree. In 1996, Powers became a co-owner because he had the ambition and confidence to approach the owners, who included Jones. In 2008, Powers and Jones bought out the last remaining founding owner.
Since then, the duo has found ways to divvy up store duties. Jones handles the back-office duties such as accounting, while Powers oversees the floor operations. “We give each department a lot of autonomy to run itself as a store within a store,” Powers says. “Our department managers have a lot of latitude because of how we’ve divided duties. Dave and I have a great relationship.”
In addition to being deeply connected to the community through the store, Powers serves the City of Decatur as commissioner and mayor pro tem.
“In hardware, in political life, nothing is ever given,” Powers says. “You have to earn every vote, every customer. Earn it all.”
He is also a community volunteer and serves on local foundations, task forces and school organizations. In 2002, the City of Decatur named Powers a Hometown Hero for his service to the community.
“My favorite thing about the hardware business is the connections with the people I’ve met,” Powers says. “Now, I’m working with third-generation customers. There are not many industries where you can say you’re working with the grandkids of families you know.”
Navigating Discrimination in the Hardware Industry
Tony Powers, co-owner of Intown Ace Hardware, has 35 years of experience as a hardware retailer. He is also deeply involved in local politics as the mayor pro tem of Decatur, Ga. Here, he shares his unique perspective about navigating discrimination within the hardware industry:
Have you experienced discrimination within the hardware industry?
“Yes, I’d say so. But it’s better than it was 20 years ago, far better. Now, within the industry, we’re not only seeing white men, but women, minorities, folks of other nationalities. The industry is becoming more global, especially with Ace expanding into other countries. We’re becoming international, so the market has to change.”
What’s an example of the discrimination you experienced?
“Very early on when I started in the business, it was frustrating going to shows. I’d be walking, visiting vendor booths with my employees. Instead of vendors talking to me, they would talk to my employees who had faces that looked like their own. When these vendors would ask a question about buying products, my employees had to reply ‘I don’t know, I work for him.’ Don’t just speak to the face that looks like yours, because you never know who makes the business decisions. I have seen vendors shift and start addressing everyone in front of them. Early in my career, when I was a manager of a lumberyard, there wasn’t anyone whose face looked like mine, so I had to grow teeth and thick skin.”
What can be done to encourage more diversity within the hardware industry?
“It’s not one of those things that has an easy answer. In the past, at many shows, I’m the only one in the crowd with a face that looks like mine. The hardware business means hard work and long hours, but it’s very rewarding. I think telling stories and looking at opportunities in underserved markets can help. Branching out and utilizing other business models like McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A could be an option, too. Having the will and being interested in speaking about diversity helps. It’s a really complicated issue and there’s not a single answer.”
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