How Metro Detroit’s local hardware stores are thriving in the megastore era

You'd think that having both a Lowe's and a Home Depot within a two-mile drive would be the kiss of death to a store like Gilbert's Pro Hardware, 21912 Harper Ave. in St. Clair Shores.


But in 2000 owner Blair Gilbert moved down the block, tripling his square footage, and hasn't looked back.


"I'm doing better than ever," says Gilbert, who has owned the 70-year-old store since 1986, when he took it over from his father. "Every year is an up year."


The news isn't all encouraging for Metro Detroit's locally owned, independent hardware stores. Mike Lafferty, owner of McNab's Hardware at 3681 Elizabeth Lake in Waterford Township, says the number of local mom-and-pop stores has dwindled significantly since he got into the hardware business 45 years ago.


"It's all the big-box stores now," Lafferty says.


But local stores that survived the advent of the hardware megastore have carved out their niche through customer service and locally specialized knowledge – and they're thriving. Metromode set out to find out why.

Matt Lafferty, McNabs Hardware


A personal touch


John Frentz co-owns Frentz and Sons Hardware at 1010 N. Main St. in Royal Oak with his brothers Mike and Chip Frentz. He says big-box stores "take a piece of you when they move in," but his store maintains an advantage over the chains through the personal touch of customer service.


"The way our dad taught us was people come in here and they have a question that needs to be answered. You go up to them and ask them if they need help," says Frentz, who took over the business from his father and grandfather in 1980. "Personal service in (chain stores) leaves a lot to be desired. So the niche that we've developed over the years as far as helping people has worked in the past, and it's worked since they opened up too."


Lafferty says he's been "fortunate" to have staff at the big-box stores near his establishment actually send customers his way, particularly when they've got questions on storm and screen doors, one of McNab's specialties. The staff at the Home Depot near Frentz's store do the same.


"They send people here every day for little things they don't have," Frentz says. "The people who work there are usually local people anyway, and they know about us."


When those customers stop in, they tend to encounter employees who are genuinely excited to help. Chelsea Cousineau has been working at Pointe Hardware and Lumber, 15020 Kercheval Ave. in Grosse Pointe Park, since she was 16. She's now the assistant manager of the store, which her family has owned since 1952. She says learning new things by helping customers is her favorite part of the business.


"When (customers) leave they're happy, so I know I've helped someone out and made someone's life a little bit easier," Cousineau says. "That's definitely the most rewarding thing for me."

Richard Becker and Randy Cousineau, Co-owners, Pointe Hardware


"We're going to go find the darn thing"


However, Gilbert says, "you can't just be nice to people and greet them."


"You have to know what faucets are in the neighborhood, what weird toilets (are in the neighborhood), and train your staff to understand that stuff," he says. "So when you come into my store, not only are you greeted, but you're greeted by someone who knows what's going on."


Other locals in the business agree that it's important to have a working knowledge of local homes' many unique design quirks, and a willingness to share that expertise with customers.


"This area has so many weird homes that have original plumbing and electrical," Cousineau says. "People come in with these contraptions, and we're able to help them out and give them advice on how to work with these old homes without completely ripping everything out and replacing it."


In Gilbert's case, the mission of serving all his customers' unique needs has turned into a near- obsession that partly contributed to his decision to expand his store.


"In my trade, it's three 'I'm outs,' and the customer won't come back," he says. "He'll think you're an idiot, or your store's an idiot."


When a customer is in need of an unusual part, Gilbert says he "can't say no, especially if it's a cool thing."


"We're not going to say no over a $2 part," he says. "We're going to go find the darn thing."


As a result, Gilbert just keeps adding to his stock, which he says led to his previous location being "packed to the gills" with merchandise. It didn't take him long to fill up the new space as well. Two years after he made the move, he more than doubled the height of his shelves to accommodate more stock. Now, he says, customers come from as far away as Royal Oak and Chesterfield Township.


"Whenever they get something tough, they're going to come to my store because they know the're going to get the part," Gilbert says.

Jennifer Carlo, CEO, Gilberts Pro Hardware.


Looking ahead


Metro-area hardware store owners' outlooks vary when it comes to the future of their business. Many of them cite the challenging nature of the business, which often requires 10- or 11-hour days and six- or seven-day weeks.


"I know a lot of people who had stores and when they tried to sell them, they couldn't," Lafferty says. "No one wanted to buy it."


Others are already preparing a new generation to take over. Frentz and his brothers are training his nephew, Todd, in the hardware business with the expectation that he'll eventually take their place. But, Frentz says, "I don't have any plans to retire myself. They'll carry me out of here feet first, probably."


Gilbert is preparing for the future with the same sense of pragmatic open-mindedness that's helped his business through the past three decades. In 1996, he had the fortune and forethought to purchase the URL and he's since carved out an online business in addition to his brick-and-mortar store. He sells parts online and also makes money off his successful YouTube videos – like his instructional guide to restringing a weed wacker, which now has 2.6 million views.


Now 65, Gilbert says he's hired some "new young guys who are smarter than me" and it's "nice to have them taking over." He's appointed longtime employee Jennifer Carlo as his CEO and plans to have her take over the business eventually. He says he encourages Carlo and his other employees to make whatever changes they want to improve the business and keep it moving into the future.


"I remember my dad being old and set in his ways, making me use a 30-year-old key-cutting machine: 'We don't need a new one. That old one's fine,'" Gilbert laughs. "That stuff's gotta get changed."

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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere