No big-box blues

Arrival of Wal-Mart, et al, does not spook Hollywood Hardware

Hollywood Hardware manager Matt Flynn believes better customer service is key to fighting off the big-box retailers and their lower prices.

Hollywood Hardware manager Matt Flynn believes better customer service is key to fighting off the big-box retailers and their lower prices.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

Between the West Sacramento Post Office and the Collings Teen Center on Merkley Avenue lies a modest, beige building. The word “Hollywood” is written in faded red italicized letters across the wall facing the street. To its right, the word “HARDWARE” is painted in big block letters, with a hammer layered behind it.

Since opening its doors in 1968, Hollywood Hardware has maintained a small foothold on the West Sacramento home-improvement business. The 20-odd parking spaces it shares with the post office belies the steady stream of customers that has kept the store afloat for nearly 40 years.

But now residents are no longer limited to Hollywood or Ace, the other hardware store in the center of town. In recent years, a slew of corporate big-box stores has sprouted in the West Sacramento area. First it was Target and Lowe’s, which moved in two miles down the street in the booming Southport area. Then came a Wal-Mart Supercenter, the largest in California. Now, a Home Depot is under construction directly across from Wal-Mart near the Reed Avenue exit of I-80.

Stories of small businesses going under when a retail giant comes to town, especially Wal-Mart, have become common. With not only a Wal-Mart, but also a Target, Lowe’s, and Home Depot within a five-mile radius, one would probably expect Hollywood Hardware to be fearing for its very existence.

But from his office overlooking the floor of Hollywood Hardware, manager Matt Flynn explained why he’s not worried about the dramatic increase in competition.

“I don’t think it’s really going to hurt us in the long run,” he said. In his mind, smaller stores go out of business because they believe they can’t compete with the big boxes. Not so. In fact, Hollywood Hardware has its own competitive advantage.

“We don’t have the enormous selection at the big-box stores,” he said. “But what we do have is customer service. I look down here, I notice all three of those guys come in a couple times a week, and it’s probably because they know they get what they want, and they’re in and out like that.”

On any given day, there are four or five employees working the floor. They can usually be found in the rectangular service area in the center of the store, which acts as a hub. A customer walks in, heads to this area and finds an employee. The employee then walks the customer to a certain section of the store and helps find whatever it is they’re looking for: electrical fittings, paint brushes, garden hoses, you name it. None of that “Look in aisle nine” business.

“If someone needs a screw, we’ll walk you back to the screws,” Flynn explains. “We’ll grab the one you want and I’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s gonna work just fine.’”

It is this non-condescending attitude that is often lost at the retail giants. A customer can feel at ease even if they have little or no experience with hardware.

A store like Hollywood Hardware has to set itself apart, because with only about 10,000 square feet of selling space, it’s obviously overshadowed by Wal-Mart’s 237,000-square-foot Supercenter.

Flynn’s optimism is based on experience. About 10 or 15 years ago, a Home Depot went in on Meadowview Road, a few miles from Hollywood’s sister store on Freeport Boulevard. In the three months following its arrival, Hollywood’s bottom line took a 15 percent hit.

“Then we had the best three months in like a 10-year period,” said Flynn.

Managing a business in times of intense competition sometimes means making tough decisions. “It’s the little businesses that get scared and they don’t do what it takes to stay in business,” Flynn says. “Which means buy less, cut back on employees, which is tough to do.”

These are trying times for Hollywood Hardware, and the same goes for many other small businesses in West Sacramento. With the arrival of not only hardware competitors but grocery and retail giants as well, the future of small business in the area is uncertain. But Flynn knows better than to fear the competition.

“I am concerned,” he goes on. “But I’m not scared.”