In a world where national chain stores and online purchasing are commonplace, Ann Arbor's Stadium Hardware has thrived for 55 years by relying on old-fashioned skills: building long-term relationships and giving great customer service.
Skip Hackbarth, one of the store's three co-owners, says that in some stores employees are encouraged to sell a product, not help customers.
"Here, we'll actually fix a problem," Hackbarth says. "We show you the best solution for the best value. It's less about selling products and more about getting people taken care of."
Building customer relationships
Stadium Hardware, 2177 W. Stadium Blvd., has gone through a few ownership changes since it opened in 1963. After being an employee for many years, Hackbarth came on as an owner in 2003, and two more co-owners, Jamie Brustad and Brian Bennink, came on board in January 2016 after two of the previous owners retired.
All three current co-owners had built long-term relationships with the business, having worked there for years. Hackbarth knew one of the previous owners of the store for years and started working at Stadium Hardware in 1999 before being asked to take over as an owner in 2003.
Both Bennink and Brustad began working at the hardware store their senior years in high school. Brustad worked there continuously for the last 17 years, while Bennink took a break from the hardware business after college, spending 13 years doing home heating and cooling work before returning to Stadium Hardware part-time in 2012.
All three owners say building relationships among employees and with customers is a big part of the store's ongoing success. Hackbarth says they aren't there to get rich but to "serve the community."
"That's what makes people come in here and spend money," he says.
Hackbarth estimates that the store's client base is about 60 percent professional contractors and 40 percent do-it-yourselfers, and the pros are often happy to give advice to the DIY crowd.
"We have regulars we can greet by name when they walk in the door," Hackbarth says. "We'll ask them about the last project they worked on. Sometimes trade professionals like plumbers and so on are willing to help answer a question, and our customers are definitely not going to get that answer anywhere else."
The store is also the place that DIY types can find bits and pieces they can't get anywhere else. Brustad says he's always looking to source odd parts that customers request.
The customer isn't always right
Good customer service isn't just about a smile and an upsell at Stadium Hardware.
Bennink calls good customer service "a lost art," adding that his employees are all happy to answer questions and make sure customers find the right department. They sometimes get a panicked call asking for a part 20 minutes before the store is about to close.
"We tell them, 'Hang up and drive. We'll be open for you,'" Hackbarth says.
Although the saying goes, "The customer is always right," Stadium Hardware staff know that isn't always true and will occasionally dissuade someone from their plan of action.
Hackbarth says that while DIY instructional videos are great for amateurs, the solution to every problem isn't always available on YouTube.
"I have to know when to tell somebody what they want to do is probably above their head," he says. "I never want to tell someone not to do something, but sometimes it's smarter to call a pro."
Hackbarth adds, "Thank God for cell phones." In the past, customers might have to verbally describe a problem in their home or a part they don't know the name of, but now they can bring in photos they've snapped on their smartphones.
"People bring in pictures, and it doesn't necessarily answer all our questions, but it's a good place to start," he says.
Bennink says Stadium Hardware staff often provide answers that customers haven't been able to find anywhere else.
"They might be looking for a part that is hard to find, or an idea or solution nobody else gave them," he says. "Maybe they were looking to replace the whole faucet stem, and we will tell them, 'I can just put a 49-cent O-ring on and get you up and running.'"
Looking to the future
Brustad says that although change is inevitable, customers look forward to a consistent experience.
"Customers know what they're going to get when they come here," he says.
Hackbarth says the store has made one concession to modern times. The store's supplier, True Value, is working with Stadium Hardware to allow customers to order online and have their parts shipped to the store. He says "there's always going to be an online market," and True Value helps to keep the store competitive.
"We try to keep up with the times but still try to keep things as simple as possible," Hackbarth says.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe.