Brandt On Leadership -- Customer Value At The Corner Hardware

The reality is, you can't buy doohickeys in cyberspace.

I'm a new-economy guy. I go through two cell phones a year, I get my e-mail via my personal digital assistant, and I shop the Web for everything from airline tickets to luggage to computers. So why do I still love my corner hardware store, which hasn't changed -- at least by the looks of things -- since the 1950s? You've been to my corner hardware store, or to someplace like it. The shelves go all the way to the ceiling, and the way things are crammed onto them makes even my basement look well organized. The selection is nowhere near as large as that at the big-box stores -- Home Depot, Lowes -- although it somehow manages to have every brass thingamajig and every PVC doohickey I ever need. Unlike SuperDuperHandyMan.com, it doesn't have caller ID or a CRM system that remembers everything I've purchased for the last 312 years. In fact, since I usually pay cash, it doesn't even know my name. What, I asked my new-economy self, in the name of Amazon.com am I doing still patronizing such a backward establishment? And then it came to me. Without Harvard M.B.A.s, without venture capital, without huge investments in Web sites, these guys had figured out what most leaders still don't understand: how to create intensely human, local, and noninvasive customer value. For example:

  • More than just another screw. Like their counterparts at the big-box stores, my hardware guys wear bright aprons and stroll unhurriedly through the store. But unlike their more corporate competitors, they seem to move slowly because they want to listen and focus on what I need -- and on the questions my four-year-old helper asks about garden hoses and vacuum cleaners. They offer not just a nail or a hammer, but real advice on how to do the job right, and how to avoid smashing small fingers in the process. Their smiles speak volumes about the amount of time they're willing to spend with my son and me, even on the technique for installing (no kidding) a 12-cent screw. Try showing your next customer-service rep a bent finishing nail over the phone or Web as you ask for a replacement. Better yet, have your preschooler ask whether or not you should countersink it, and how. Odds are, the rep will think the two of you are boating -- and send you life preservers in the bargain.
  • Localized knowledge and inventory. I live in a charming old house, which mainly means that part of that charm is always breaking, rusting, or rotting away. In fact, most of this charm is 78 years old, and hasn't been manufactured for 50 years, if that. Yet my hardware guys not only can identify the make of a broken brass hinge from a 78-year-old cabinet, they can recommend a replacement that looks almost the same and fits into the holes. By contrast, the big-box boys may not have the hinge -- it hasn't been made since World War II, for Pete's sake -- but they'll no doubt be happy to show you some new cabinets. Just wait a minute while they try to find the guy who knows about cabinets . . . .
  • They don't want a relationship with me. Well, yes they do, but it's an old-fashioned, guys-helping-guys-fix-stuff kind of relationship that I'm comfortable with. What they don't do is ask me for my ZIP code every time I check out, the better to target junk mail to my home. They also don't inquire in small type whether I mind if they distribute my name, phone number, and e-mail to thousands of companies who might pay them for my online demographic profile. Instead, they simply offer good advice, charge a fair (but not inexpensive) price, and then trust that if they did their job well, I'll come back and spend even more money in the future. And that maybe my son will, too.
Which we do, almost every weekend. Hey, where else can a new-economy guy ask for thingamajigs or doohickeys with a straight face, and still expect to see one in return? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is now editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.
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