Rethinking Retail: Hardware goes glam in San Francisco. Your windows can too.

Who ever thought toilet plungers, garbage cans and weed whackers could be sexy? A hardware store in San Francisco makes it so with colorful, creative, eye-catching window displays that bring passersby to a grinding halt. "The concept is to get people to stop and look," said Noelle Nicks, Cole Hardware's visual merchandiser. The goal, she says, is "to get people to come in even if they had no intent of buying something," noting hardware stores are shopping destinations.
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Who ever thought toilet plungers, garbage cans and weed whackers could be sexy? A hardware store in San Francisco makes it so with colorful, creative, eye-catching window displays that bring passersby to a grinding halt.

"The concept is to get people to stop and look," said Noelle Nicks, Cole Hardware's visual merchandiser. The goal, she says, is "to get people to come in even if they had no intent of buying something," noting hardware stores are shopping destinations.



At hardware stores -- much like fitness equipment stores -- shoppers don't usually just happen past, look in a window and think, "Yes, a lawnmower is really what I wanted today." But when that lawnmower -- or a recumbent bike or even a tent -- looks so seductive in a window display, maybe the shopper will stop and do a U-turn to come in the door.

Featured in the SNEWS 2009 Fitness magazine (www.snewsnet.com/magazines), Cole Hardware (www.colehardware.com) illustrated from a non-industry retail standpoint how merchandising needs to speak to a person's lifestyle and make the products appear not only appropriate but necessary. The concept behind Cole Hardware's enticing window displays can apply to any type of non-necessary retail destination.

How did a family-run neighborhood ACE hardware store (founded in 1920) start doing windows that could compete with its Union Square neighbors the likes of Macy's and Polo Ralph Lauren? When Nicks, who started as a stock clerk about 10 years ago, had some ideas more than five years ago -- and the management, including owner Rick Karp (called "Keeper of the Karma" on the website), let her try. Karp, on the website, tells the story, noting how he had to beg her to come on full time as the window merchandiser. (Click here to see that story.)

Nicks told SNEWS the windows of the stores -- we have only seen the ones in the downtown store on Fourth Street around the corner from Moscone Center -- used to be like Walgreen's windows -- piles of whatever happened to be on sale that week. It just wasn't that appealing, she said. She was given freedom to dabble with her self-imposed rule that 99 percent of what's in the window has to be what's sold in the store, but that doesn't mean she puts drill bits in the window since they are on sale or they happen to have excess inventory. She simply wants more people to come in who hadn't planned to.

"Truthfully, it's less about selling the window items as it is about getting people's attention," she said. "Hardware stores are a destination. You come in with a list. You go there with a mission."

Where does she get her ideas? "It happens on the way to Happy Donuts," she said. Yeah, really. When she saunters down the street for coffee, ideas strike. Of course, she also keeps massive binders of pages from magazines that light a fire in her imagination of something she could try. She reads Better Homes & Gardens a lot, as well as Martha Stewart magazines and other catalogs, eyeing how they use color or organize items. "I love junk mail," she added. "I go through all of that."

Her tips:

>> Pay attention to detail, including the backdrop, flooring and lighting. "It has to look like a museum piece when you put it in."

>> Put prices on the items so passers-by know what they are looking at and don't have to ask.

>>Sort random objects by color or category or some other method so there is a theme that ties together. "If you put too many random things in there, it starts to look like a rummage sale with price tags."

>> Make sure you are able to repackage or keep the item in good condition to be able to sell it afterward.

Since their stores are mostly in older buildings, she is limited by window size and therefore smaller access doors. That means she can't use a lot of big stuff, although she has used vacuum cleaners, BBQs and garbage cans. Although the windows of the four stores may be similar, they could also be very different, with the neighborhood stores emphasizing more BBQ and gardening or yard items, for example.

These days with four stores to take care of and full support of the family-owned business, she also has a visual merchandising assistant, Dominique Tutwiler, who joined her about a year ago after starting at the downtown store as a cashier four years ago. Click here to see more about the duo.

But Cole Hardware is more than a hardware store not just because of its windows. It also is a community event hub, with activities such as women's nights, lectures on acupuncture, a bridal registry, kid's cookie club, and how-to sessions on repair and maintenance. The windows are frosting -- but a touch much appreciated by the ownership.

Karp's father and founder, Dave, 93, "loves it," Nicks said of the windows and both give her full freedom.

"I just show up," she said, "and do it."

--Therese Iknoian

(Take a look at the SNEWS 2009 Fitness magazine www.snewsnet.com/magazines, page 20, to see four other pictures of Nicks' windows and to read the entire story on merchandising from those outside of the industry, page 18.)

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