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Big G takes it all in stride

Big G Ace revamped its store and sales strategy after a Menards opened across the road in March.

HASTINGS, NEB. —A sign on the wall of Big G Ace Hardware bills it as “The Largest Ace Store in America.” And no one has stepped forward to contest that title, according to general manager Linda Dill. When Big G relocated in 2002, moving from a cramped, 18,000-square-foot building in downtown Hastings to a remodeled ShopKo discount store, Dill had 77,000 square feet to work with. Almost 75 percent of that was selling space.

No one knew at the time that Menards would open one of its 280,000 sq. ft. megastores right across the road in 2008.

Some folks might call this a bad turn of events, given the money, time and energy invested in Big G by the Foote family, who have owned the store for three generations. But in this part of the country, people are self-reliant, and prepared.

“The first thing we did was retrain the staff,” recalled Dill, who has worked for the Foote family for 32 years. “We had been doing a lot of that already, but we really hit it hard.” Each sales associate had to know their own department inside and out, plus the departments on either side of them.

The store also revamped its merchandise, deepening its assortment in some categories and eliminating others. “We increased our hardware assortment immensely,” said Dill. Knowing they couldn’t compete on appliances, Big G stopped selling them, freeing up room for customer service desks and shopping carts. Ace corporate helped with the design.

By the time the project was over, about two-thirds of the store had been changed around. Dill agreed that, under normal circumstances, Big G’s owners would not have remodeled their five-year-old store. But looking on the positive side, “We knew what we would have done different the first time—and we got the chance to redo it,” she said.

The new and improved Big G Ace Hardware feels roomier, according to Dill. Not as roomy as a 280,000-square-foot store, but not every customer wants that much retail space around them. While Menards continues to experiment with groceries and other unusual product categories across the street, Big G offers pipe insulation in 10 different diameters; a minishowroom with windows, doors, and roofing displays; and an entire aisle devoted to commercial-grade fluorescent light bulbs. Contractors still have their own entrance and separate checkout on the left side of the store. Big G sells entire house packages and also operates an equipment rental center.

As expected, business fell off after Menards opened its doors on March 18. But sales began climbing back up three months later and are still heading in that direction.

Dill doesn’t seem particularly worried about Menards; she has plenty of other things to keep her busy. Interviewed during a torn ado watch last June, the 52-year-old store manager was busy directing incoming traffic from the garden center.

“When ever there’s a storm watch we have to bring the plants in from outside,” she explained. “We’ve had so many this spring, they should be able to walk in by now.”

Luckily, the twister bypassed Hastings that night but landed in Aurora, 20 miles to the east.