Hardware store owner Andy Wilkerson explains the Blackhawk way
Blackhawk Hardware is a Charlotte institution, having operated at the Park Road Shopping Center since 1977. The Ace Hardware Corp. franchise is adding 12,000 square feet of sales space by March, a surprising move given retailing’s overall shrinkage. In addition to a new elevator, Blackhawk is adding a red spiral slide for customers of all ages to travel from the main floor to the basement level.
Andy Wilkerson, whose family owns the business, talked about how independent retailers compete against big-box rivals and e-commerce giants.
Is Ace nationally picking up or losing market share from Lowe’s and The Home Depot?
I don’t know much about the market shares, but over the last five years ACE has opened up 409 stores and in the next five years they plan to open 800 more. Here at Blackhawk Hardware, we have seen a trend with consumers focusing more on “local”, both locally owned and locally made. Consumers crave a place where the staff is knowledgeable and part of their community.
Is online ordering affecting Blackhawk to a significant degree?
No, online ordering is not really affecting us. Our customers want a unique shopping experience and we provide that for them. Customers may stop by Blackhawk Hardware for one thing, but they find it fun to browse around and explore our store, so they often leave with a few more items than they had planned. Our online ordering sales through the ACE site have gone up a bit, but it is still a small percentage of our overall sales.
When is the last time Blackhawk expanded?
In 1991, we closed our original Blackhawk Hardware store and moved across the shopping center into the former J.C. Penney space with 30,000 square feet of sales floor in addition to a basement warehouse and upstairs offices. In 2003, we expanded even more by opening the outdoor lawn and garden area, The Gardens of Blackhawk. Then in 2008, Blackhawk further expanded the garden center into the adjacent shop basement, adding another 4,000 square feet.
What is the benefit of getting bigger?
Expanding our sales floor to include the basement level allows us to give our customers more of what they want. We have been physically limited by our space and we haven’t been able to offer additional products in our departments. We’ve had many requests for specific items, like body lotions and soaps, but we haven’t had the space. Soon we will.
Has Columbia, S.C.-based Edens been a good partner for Blackhawk since they bought the center?
Absolutely yes. From day one they have worked with us to make sure we would be able to stay in Park Road Shopping Center for a long time. That’s who they are. They are long-term thinkers and they are always thinking 30 years out to make sure the shopping center can still succeed. Edens is very sincere about doing exactly what they say they are going to do. They’ve done a great job bringing in other businesses that can support each other and have made incredible improvements to the center overall, from regular maintenance to modern upgrades.
What did you do before working for Blackhawk?
I received my master’s in industrial design from Savannah School of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., and began working at a few different design firms. I was responsible for designing the athletic arenas and buildings at different colleges.
When did you decide to work for the family business?
It was in 2009, with the recession and the economy. Work at my current job started to shift and I was fortunate enough to be able to come in-house at my family’s store. Blackhawk was in need of someone to help refine some of their systems, and I realized this would give me the opportunity to design more than where I currently was working. I realized I was really good at problem solving, systems, processes and ideas rather than designing a product. The opportunity to design and refine systems and processes is why I decided I wanted to work at Blackhawk Hardware.
Are other family members working there?
Yes — my mother, father and uncle all still work at Blackhawk.
Do profit margins in hardware retailing fluctuate depending on economic conditions?
Not particularly. What we sell just shifts in different economic conditions as there is always “necessity” products in a hardware store. In a recession, discretionary spending will dip as people put off renovating their bathrooms etc. But things still break, and new light bulbs are still needed. For every category that takes a hit during a recession another category rises to take its place. When the housing market collapsed [in 2008], our cabinet hardware sales went off a cliff, which then allowed for our Lawn and Garden and Garden Center to step up and become one of our top departments.
Southeast Charlotte is undergoing an unprecedented rebuilding/new housing boom. Is Blackhawk benefiting?
Yes, we are just starting to. A majority of our clientele are homeowners. People that moved into inner-city southeast Charlotte a few years ago are now in their mid-to-late 20s and are starting families and transitioning to the next stage of life. They are now starting to buy property and build houses, which is where we come in. With many people purchasing fixer-uppers, we see a larger demand for kitchen and bath hardware. Blackhawk doesn’t offer much in the way of nightlife, but we do offer some exciting and hip kitchen gadgets and grilling tools.
About 70% of sales are to women. How does that compare with years past?
We’ve always had women making the majority of our sales. That is how my parents built the business in the very beginning. They would see women come in the store, walk around and say, “I always love a good hardware store,” but walk out without buying anything. So, my mom opened up the kitchen shop and expanded our offerings in housewares, bath and outdoor living. This really took off for us and Blackhawk became a place that provided more varied and unique offerings that women wanted to shop for.
How many people work for Blackhawk?
We have about 100 employees. Many of our employees have other careers, primary jobs or even may be retired; but they really enjoy working at Blackhawk, so they do. We are a family here. Our employees really like to work, and they bring a different level of professionalism to the customer service we offer.
State/city is giving Lowe’s $16 million in incentives to employ more than 1,500 tech workers in Charlotte. Is that fair to competitors?
I’m not sure if it is fair or unfair, but it doesn’t quite make economic sense to me. Large corporations get these tax incentives that bring a couple hundred people into the area, which doesn’t really make a difference. Instead I think we should be using the money to improve Charlotte as a city. If we used the tax incentive funds to help build new parks, better roads, or expand public transportation, our city will become more appealing and encourage other workers to move to the area. Businesses start in and move to cities that people want to live in. Blackhawk didn’t get any tax incentives to encourage us to expand. That’s not to say I would not accept tax incentives if they were offered. Let’s not get crazy here– I’ll take all the money I can get! Our elected officials routinely forget that small businesses actually provide more jobs compared to large corporations. In fact, 62% of the jobs in our country are provided by small businesses, yet tax incentives are given to large companies that don’t need the help.
Can adults take the slide or is that just kiddies?
Anyone can! We are very excited about the expansion plans for our current location and really want to continue providing a unique shopping experience to our guests. This is just another way we can add a little more fun to their shopping experience at Blackhawk Hardware.