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Keeping nimble: Twin Ports’ small hardware stores find ways to survive, thrive

Marshall Hardware co-owner Steve Marshall (left) examines a key blank in the store recently while making duplicate keys for Tim Cain. Cutting keys, repairing screens and sharpening blades are among the special services neighborhood hardware stores offer that big box stores usually don't. Steve Kuchera /

Candace Renalls

For the Duluth News Tribune

Menards' arrival in the Twin Ports decades ago struck a blow to small neighborhood hardware stores. More hits followed when the mega retail chain opened two more stores here. Then, the 2001 opening of Home Depot in Duluth delivered another wallop.

Big box competition has contributed to the closings of several family-owned independents that had long been neighborhood fixtures.

In August, the opening of Mills Fleet Farm's sprawling 183,000-square-foot Hermantown store posed another threat to local hardware stores. Fleet Farm's offerings are even more diverse than those of the giant home improvement store chains. Fleet Farm's products run the gamut — sporting goods, fishing and hunting gear, farm supplies, automotive, food, clothing and household items.

It also carries typical hardware store fare, presenting more competition for the remaining old-fashioned hardware stores.

But so far, store owners and managers say Fleet Farm's opening hasn't hurt their businesses.

"Anytime you have that big of a store, people will go there and check it out a couple of times," said Steve Marshall, co-owner of Marshall Hardware which has operated in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood since 1939. "Fleet Farm is a huge store and it takes a while to go through. But they are far enough from our location that they won't go all the time. We are more convenient and have products (Fleet Farm) doesn't have."

Ditto at Denny's Ace Hardware in the city's Woodland neighborhood.

"I haven't noticed anything," said owner Mark Moran. "We just provide the best service we can. We try to put in products not available at the big box stores."

At Burggraf's Ace Hardware, manager Aaron Gursky says their East Hillside location is far enough away from Fleet Farm, Menards and Home Depot in the Miller Hill business district to be affected.

"Fleet Farm is on the other side of town, up the hill," Gursky explained. "Most of our customers are within three miles. Fleet Farm offers a wide variety of stuff we don't offer. But we've been doing OK."

In at least one way, they've even benefited.

"Fleet Farm has actually sent people our way for nuts and bolts," Gursky said. "We have a big selection."

Safety in distance applies even more to the East End Hardware Hank across the bridge in Superior.

"If they were sitting in our backyard it would be different," the store's co-owner Roger Lundquist said of Fleet Farm. "I like their wide range of their products, but it doesn't affect our business at all. We are a community hardware store and our community generally stays with us. There has been no impact or even any discussion about it from our customers."

Still, Lundquist knows first-hand how damaging big box competition can be. He also was part-owner of Bingham Hardware on Banks Avenue in Superior. The store closed in 2006, after nearly 120 years in business, after Menards opened on nearby Tower Avenue.

Diversify and specialize

The impact from the opening of the Superior Menards about 15 years ago also was felt at East End Hardware, which has served the city's East End, Itasca and Allouez neighborhoods since the early 1900s.

"It forced us to diversity, to carry products not available at Menards," Lundquist said.

So the Superior store began specializing in high quality power equipment. It didn't drop any product lines but made adjustments in areas where it was difficult to compete. Instead of carrying eight different kitchen faucets, for example, it now carries four.

The changes worked out well. It helped the business keep its community base of customers as well as drawing people from farther away in Northwestern Wisconsin, Lundquist said.

In Duluth, Burggraf's Ace Hardware, which opened four years ago, filled the void left by the closings of Daugherty's Hardware in the Central Hillside in 2008 and the downtown Ace Hardware in 2010. It's owned by the Burggraf family, who also own hardware stores in Grand Rapids, Fosston and Cottage Grove, Minn., and in Grand Forks and Fargo, N.D.

The store opened with a basic inventory. Since then, products have been added, based on the neighborhood demographics. Because of the community's older housing stock, that includes the addition of plumbing parts for older sinks and bathtubs, including faucets for clawfoot tubs.

Adapting and surviving

But for the four traditional neighborhood hardware stores remaining in Duluth and Superior, there's more to surviving big box competition.

The stores have adapted over the years by stressing customer service and convenience. They have knowledgeable staffs and carry products customers need living in the Northland. Employees approach people when they come in, eager to help them find what they need.

"We're a small town kind of hardware store," said Gursky of Burggraf's Ace. "We try to get to know our customers. We know many by name. We greet people at the door and take them right to their product."

Said Lundquist of East End Hardware Hank: "If I was a big contractor I would want to get them in and out in five minutes."

And many do.

The stores continue to offer specialized services such as fixing screens and windows, cutting glass, making duplicate keys and sharpening blades — services that aren't usually offered at big box stores.

"We take care of our customers and have a pretty loyal following," said Marshall of Marshall Hardware. "We stay focused on what we do best. For us, it's customer service. And that's been working out great."

Outdoors, feed stores also keeping an eye on big-box competition

Neighborhood hardware stores aren't the only small local businesses that could have lost business to the new Mills Fleet Farm in Hermantown.

Fleet Farm also sells guns, fishing supplies and animal feed, opening up more locally owned stores to its big box competition.

Fisherman's Corner has operated for 34 years on Miller Trunk Highway, about six miles northwest of the new Fleet Farm. It, too, sells guns, rods and reels, live bait and other fishing supplies.

Scott VanValkenburg, longtime owner of Fisherman's Corner, acknowledged many customers went to Fleet Farm to check it out when it opened, especially with all the advertising and sales surrounding it.

"Sure, we lost some sales because of it," he said. "It's the new business thing. A lot of people want to see it."

He checked it out himself, concluding his store has a greater variety of products geared to Northland hunting and fishing.

"We take care of the local business better," he said. "They carry more of a national product."

But if customers point out that Fleet Farm has a hot special going on, he'll match it, he said.

If Fleet Farm's impact on his business is similar to the effects felt from Gander Mountain's opening in 1993, VanValkenburg will be pleased. He says his business grew about 10 percent after Gander Mountain opened.

"Business went up because it drew people to town," he said. "When they came down from the Range, they'd check what other gun shops were in town, giving us residual business."

"We're going gangbusters"

Fredenberg Minno-ette is far enough out of town that owner Scott Youngstrom wasn't worried about competition from Mills Fleet Farm.

Located between Fish Lake and Island Lake, about 10 miles northwest of Duluth, his store is convenient for anglers and hunters.

And with business good in August when Fleet Farm opened, and currently bustling with the arrival of ice fishing season, he appears to have been right.

"We're going gangbusters here," he said last week. "It's getting busier and busier. There are a lot of people fishing."

Like Fleet Harm, the Minno-ette serves anglers with rods and reels, tackle, live bait, augers and ice tents as well as guns and other supplies for hunters.

He hasn't noticed any impact on his business from Fleet Farm's arrival. But it may take a year to know for sure, he said.

"Business is good"

When Duluth Feed Seed & Supply opened in September 2015 on Howard Gnesen Road in Rice Lake, just north of Duluth, its owners were concerned about the coming Fleet Farm.

Greg and Julie Carlson had long seen a need for a feed store in the Duluth area for all manner of animals kept by rural residents. And they finally decided to do something about it.

Despite the news of Fleet Farm's coming, they moved forward with their plans to establish a store. They said they would compete with Fleet Farm with customer service and convenience. Patrons can quickly get what they need and can park by the front door for easy loading by staff or by semi-trailers filled with hay, straw, corn and alfalfa for bulk purchases.

So how are they doing since Fleet Farm opened five months ago?

"The week they opened, it was slow here," said their son, John Hatland, who manages the store. But other than that, he hasn't noticed any difference.

"We heard from Day One from everyone that there is a need for it to be here," he said. "As a new business we are growing our inventory. We're growing and expanding still. Business is good."