When Petersburg Hardware held a Grand Opening for its new location in 2016, 2,000 people lined up at the doors… not bad for a town of 2,500 in the middle of nowhere, Indiana.
It’s a far cry—and a far distance—from Indianapolis, which owners Dennis and Sherry Bishop were looking to leave in order to raise their kids in a less-hectic environment.
“They got a call from a relative, saying that a hardware store in Petersburg was for sale,” recalls Robin Smith, their middle child. “Dad never had hardware on his radar; he was no handyman”—still trying to live down the day he drilled a hole in his own hand. Yet he did his due diligence and bought the outfit in 1995. Behind its charming vintage brick façade, however, the place was dark, dusty and crowded—not inviting folks to linger.
“My parents turned it around,” says Robin, who’d graduated high school in 2005 and headed off to college to pursue a degree in accounting. Along the way, she married Eric Smith in 2007 and joined him in a cellphone operation—which, they came to realize, had but a limited future in the face of the growing Internet.
“By 2015, we realized everybody was going online. Meanwhile, the Petersburg store, although it lacked parking, was doing well, so we approached my parents about teaming up and growing it more aggressively.”
Robin—a young lady who makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker—undertook research to guide their decision on the expansion necessary to support two families: add on, build a new store, or buy a bigger existing building? “We had a 9 a.m. meeting scheduled to make our decision and move ahead; at 8 a.m., I received call that our foster baby was ready to be picked up.” (She’s been called “The Hardware Baby” ever since and grew up in the store.)
The decision, by the way, was to move into a four-times-larger, 28,000-sq. ft. modern building on the market and nearer the highway. And it was Robin’s job to fill it, beyond the usual plumbing, electrical and such. “Horse feed, lumber, plants, toys, clothing—the sky’s the limit. It was a whirlwind!”
Customer surveys, their co-op’s feasibility study, and financial projections had all pointed to expansion in size and depth of offerings. And they turned out to be right on the money. Says Robin, “We did well above estimates, reaching the five-year goal in three years. And now, we need to expand even more—to move our lumber outdoors. There are not a lot of new homes going up at present, but a study indicates the town could support 71 new houses.”
Meanwhile, it’s decks, add-ons, remodels, and barns, with contractors supplying 15-20% of Petersburg’s trade.
Competition? There isn’t any, Robin declares. “It’s 20, 30 miles to the boxes. Here, we offer a small-town mentality, where we greet people, help them, walk them through their projects. (As an astute five-year-old critic advised her mother, ‘This is better than Lowe’s!) “Our 2016 Grand Opening brought in lots of new customers, saying ‘I can’t believe this!’ and ‘Great store; I’ll be back.’
“Still, we didn’t know what to expect with this year’s April anniversary celebration because of COVID, but people felt revived and ready to shop again. Our sales that day—$200,000—were more than the previous owner had in his entire life; 24 high-end Scag riding mowers. I walked around passing out water bottles to keep our staff going.”
Petersburg’s staff of 13 is a blend of old-timers (two inherited from the former owner), three more that segued from the old building, and the rest hired to serve the vastly-bigger new location—“and we’re looking to hire more, but they’re so hard to find.” Qualifications? “Show up!” she laughs. Seriously: “Look nice, be able to hold a conversation, be friendly, fit in with our team. We’re like family here; we take care of each other. Everybody watches out for everybody else. We celebrate birthdays, our Number One thing! If it’s a milestone, we decorate the store, dress up. In July, we hold a big party—nice dinner, gifts. We take everybody bowling. Bring in pizza.”
Contractors? “They love us, too. We keep these guys in business. We recommend them to our DIYers. I’ll even grab them while they’re in the store: ‘Help me with this customer!’”
Those retail shoppers get a big boost from Robin’s mom, Sherry. “She’s the biggest DIYer I’ve ever met. She keeps up with trends for me, too,” declares her daughter. “I’ll find her re-doing furniture in the middle of the power aisle, doing projects with our products. She’ll dress up like a clown, a cowboy, a hot dog. (In fact, one day when we had to take someone into the hospital, she was spotted: ‘You’re the hot dog lady at Petersburg!’) Watch her Facebook video,” Robin directs. Or watch the company’s commercials. “We make our own, using our cellphones. The ones where we make fun of Dad are really popular. For our first anniversary, we did a video feature that got 24,000 views within 24 hours, worldwide. People in Germany!”
Ladies’ Night, as I’ll bet you can guess, is a big hit here—in fact, they call it Carnival. “We have games, made from products sourced here, giving them ideas for parties. The women cut loose and have a lot of fun, and the noise level is due to laughter.”
Then there’s what I believe to be a first in the history of lumberyards: Chick Days. “A mess! We bring in baby chicks to sell (ducks, turkeys, and quail, too). Once I had to chase a baby quail through the store, yelling ‘Help me!’ ‘No!’ they yelled back: ‘It’s too much fun watching you.’ But it increased our feed sales.
“Adding departments is my go-to area, and it takes a lot of shelves to fill 28,000 ft. So I increased toys from 8 ft. to 28 ft. and brought in an entire pop-up toy section. Then, for Easter, I came in, after hours, and made up Easter baskets, using flowerpots, wrapped in cellophane, which sold for from $10 to $30. People even phoned in special orders.
“In merchandising endcaps, I made an entire endcap up of kids’ garden tools. Then at Christmas, we decorated trees, and families would come in to take their family photos beside them. We collected letters to Santa. The town of Santa Claus, Indiana, is only 45 minutes from our store. I wrote each kid a personal reply and then drove to Santa Claus to get them postmarked there.”
If it sounds like they’re all having way too much fun in a workday, pay attention to this: During the first year in the new store, sales skyrocketed 132%. The average ticket grew 30%. And average transactions were up 82%. What dropped? Rentals. So the practice was discontinued and the space put to better use.
What’s next? “The sky’s the limit,” Robin reiterates. “We’ll do a redesign in the near future because of our growth, allowing us to get our lumber outside. That segment is growing fast, not only in dollars transacted but in number of boards.” (Hey, I have an idea: Dress Mom up as Paul Bunyan….)
Clearly Robin is here for the long haul. “I absolutely enjoy every single day: We can make a difference in our community. We help out our customers, we listen to them, and they’re so thankful.”