Southern Home & Garden Ace Hardware: Perfecting the Art of Diversification
By Chris Jensen
Southern Home & Garden Ace Hardware in Carrollton, Ga., transitioned to a full-service DIY and garden center in 2010.»
Southern Home & Garden Ace Hardware in Carrollton, Ga., has been a family-owned and operated business since the early 1980s. Owners Ray and Linda Fulford transitioned the business from a builder supply store catering specifically to home builders to a full-service DIY and garden center in 2010. They have been serving homeowners and local businesses in the west Georgia and east Alabama communities ever since.
After Ray’s retirement from the business, his daughter and son-in-law, Kristi and Ben Garrett, stepped in to represent the family as part of the management team consisting of: Frank Cuda, general manager; Joseph Taylor and Cathy Alvis, assistant store managers; Bethany Cox, retail sales manager; Pam Cuda, business manager; and Tina Puckett, office manager.The staff at Southern Home & Garden Ace Hardware is focused on delivering exceptional customer service.»
On six acres, the main building is 15,000 square feet with selling floor space of 10,500 square feet and 4,500 square feet for office and back support areas. The garden gazebo building serves as the customer service center for the garden center, and they recently added a 1,500-square-foot Southern Outdoor Power building with 3,000-square-foot support area.
The sales mix is 90 percent DIY and 10 percent pro. Top-selling categories covering 75 percent of total business include lawn and garden, outdoor living, garden center (live plants), STIHL power equipment, Southern States (feed, seed, chemicals), Southern Outdoor Power (Bad Boy Mowers) and paint.
The store has diversified into a number of strong niche categories including bee keeping, live chicks, (the poultry variety), disc golf, gourmet and regional foods, gifts and locally produced products.A recent seminar on beekeeping introduced people to the hobby.»
Chick days are very popular in spring.»
Frank Cuda came on board during the summer of 2010 to serve as general manager. “When the housing market had come to a stop and the building supply part of the business was failing, the option was close or go forward in a different direction. Prior to my arrival I had been in retailing 40-plus years, beginning in Cincinnati with Mabley & Carew department stores and ending with Macy’s department stores in Atlanta,” he explains.
Southern Home & Garden Ace Hardware prides itself on its exceptional customer service, with the number of employees varying from 20 to 24 with seasonal flex. To ensure customer service remains at a high level, they use positive service coaching examples resulting in win-win situations, and frequently remind associates that customer service is the only competitive differentiator they control.The store has become a destination for those who love playing disc golf.»
Coping With COVID
The business was going strong with lots of initiatives planned for 2020, when the pandemic hit. “Had we been told in January to plan for a pandemic in March I’m not sure we would have realized the scope of what became a major change—a rebooting of the retail industry,” Cuda says.
He adds, “Once confronted with the problem and being deemed essential, the challenge became how do we stay open, provide a safe environment for the associates and our customers, while maintaining a reasonable level of service? The management team identified problems, asked questions, developed a plan and moved forward quickly.”
First, they reduced store hours, opening an hour later and closing an hour earlier from Monday through Friday. “This afforded us the ability to split the management and associate group into two teams, working without contact between teams,” Cuda says.
Next, they rolled out all the recommended safety initiatives: plexiglass screens, six-foot distancing markers, mandatory masks for associates (politely suggested for customers), sanitizer stations, store cleaning regimen and free masks for those who forgot but want to shop. “Once this was accomplished, we felt we could continue providing service to the community as a safe and essential store,” Cuda says.A wide selection of local gourmet food is offered.»
As COVID-19 took hold, the order came to shelter in place. “We came to realize that Southern Home & Garden had become ‘the place.’ As a result, customer counts, transactions and our sales grew exponentially,” Cuda explains. “We were more than doubling our sales with half the staff on a daily basis—it was amazing. The staff all pulled together, with no turnover.”
He adds, “We thanked our customers for supporting us, while our customers thanked us for being essential. The overall attitude was that we are all in this together.”
The store found new ways to serve the community during the pandemic, with help from its supplier. “Ace corporate did an amazing job of reacting to the pandemic, supporting the store with timely information, safety signing, cleaning products to the best of their ability and general awareness of being in this together,” Cuda says. “We implemented curbside service, were already a part of shopping Ace online and were limited on the delivery side except for big-ticket items.”
With the entire year being so hectic, they didn’t know what to expect for the holiday selling season. “Our expectations for the fourth quarter and holiday season are based on the amazing second quarter trends that continued and increased in the third quarter. The fourth quarter is always a challenge. Competitive exposure grows, promotional pricing becomes more intense and product availability is more difficult,” Cuda explains.The unique product assortment includes Helle knives from Norway and Hults Bruke axes from Sweden.»
He adds, “The one constant in our favor is service. Through this pandemic we have significantly grown our Ace Rewards base—picking up over 6,600 in three months to reach more than 24,000—and we experienced a surge of new customers adding to our overall customer base. They came early in the pandemic and have stayed with us, primarily because of the service and the overall positive shopping experience.”
There is no doubt that the holiday selling season this year will be different, with Cuda noting that they are more focused on providing a safe shopping and working environment for their customers and associates. “We are even more thankful for them choosing to visit, shop and support the store. We have been frequently recognized by the community as being a friendly, helpful and interesting place to shop, always finding something new and different each visit,” he says.
To keep the staff motivated during the long months of the pandemic, they took a percentage of their profits and split it out evenly among everyone as a hazardous duty bonus. “It was a way to keep everyone fully engaged. We keep everyone aware of targeted sales goals for the week and month,” Cuda points out.A special section of the store is devoted to Scout uniforms.»
Seeking Constant Improvement
When asked what makes Southern Home & Garden Ace unique in the marketplace, Cuda responds that they are focused first on customer service. “We are a friendly, helpful place to shop, we provide an environment that is hometown, we are interested in customers’ needs and problems, with new products on the horizon that they find unique, different, useful and worthy of word-of-mouth praise,” he says.
Digital marketing is a new point of emphasis with their marketing strategy. “Just like the weather, our customer base and their shopping habits are constantly changing and just like the weather, it’s hard to predict which way the wind will blow or what digital market media they will be using next,” Cuda says.
With Kristi and Ben coming into the business in 2019, Kristi put forth the challenge to make a conscious effort to step up our game in the digital marketing arena, according to Cuda. “We were missing a certain customer demographic that no longer reads print media but was constantly online or on their phones as a shopping vehicle,” he says.Southern Outdoor Power sales and service center features Bad Boy Mowers and STIHL power equipment.»
They have hired an outside media specialist to work with the management team to help facilitate a timely and cost-effective method of posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Ace Local Lift.
“Utilizing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Ace’s Local Lift, Google Business and mass email has allowed us to reach our regular and potential new customers,” explains Cuda. “We use our platforms to inform customers of our in-stock regular and promotional products and also educate them through interesting educational article and videos.”
For their next growth initiative, they are adding a Yamaha golf car dealership to Southern Outdoor Power in January. They have also secured a trailer deal so they can offer a package to customers, Cuda notes. Also in the works is an expansion of the popular Bad Boy Mowers category to focus on the professional lawn care and landscaper part of the business. Targeted growth of the garden center is planned to complement growth of the professional lawn care and landscaper business.
“STIHL has been a huge growth business for us—up 94 percent. We’ve designated one person to have responsibility for STIHL,” Cuda points out, adding that STIHL is a nice complement to Bad Boy Mowers. “It’s also about growing the service side of the business,” he adds.
In addition, Cuda says they plan to complete a merchandise reset for the main building in 2021 that will address space reallocation and customer service convenience.Cutting boards are merchandised with related food and accessories.»
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