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Connecticut Store Pioneers Concept

Cindy and Bill Johnson, owner of Johnson’s True Value in...
Steve Blake, of Johnson’s True Value, takes inventory of the...

Bill Johnson, owner of Johnson’s True Value in Groton, Conn., was vacationing in Palm Springs, Calif., last January when he told his wife Cindy that after 25 years of the same store plan, it was time for a remodel. She agreed, and when they returned home, he called his True Value rep, Steve Burns, to talk about the possibilities.

The Johnson’s timing couldn’t have been better. True Value was about to launch its Destination True Value plan and was looking for showcase stores in different regions of the country. The Johnsons flew out to see the model store in Cary, Ill., and agreed to let True Value use their 12,000 square feet of retail selling space as a blank canvas to show off the new format.

“The size of the building and dimensions of the store made it a great store for Destination True Value,” said Burns, a retail implementation specialist for True Value. “Another thing we liked about Johnson’s store is that it’s located in the Northeast along Interstate 95 and accessible to other members in the area who want to see the format.”

Johnson’s initial notion of painting some interior walls and changing a few light fixtures turned into a complete remodel, inside and out—with new signage, walls, gondolas, everything. The plumbing, electrical and power tool departments were beefed up considerably, and the paint area moved from a little corner of the store to the front and center signature spot. In addition, decorative hardware was expanded from four to more than 32 feet to act as a major draw for female customers.

“It was a much bigger investment than we thought, but it was well worth it,” said Johnson, who held his store’s grand reopening in November. “We see increased sales in all departments, and even with the weather and the bad economy, we’re well ahead of last year. Not many stores can say that.”

Johnson True Value is a fixture in Groton, which is located on the Thames River in New London County, about midway between New York and Boston. Groton is home to a Naval station, the Electric Boat Corp., General Dynamics, Pfizer’s global research center and a Dow Chemical plant. The property, originally a gas station started by Johnson’s grand mother in 1929, was converted to a hardware store in 1959 by Johnson’s father, William. Bill Jr. joined the business two years later after his high school graduation, and has been there ever since.

Among those departments completely revamped in the remodel is paint and sundries, which is now about 1,000 square feet and includes color matching services and an extensive offering of True Value brands and Pittsburgh Paint. Power tools are also a vital part of the new plan, as Johnson is competing for both DIY and professional business. Johnson shopped the Home Depot and Lowe’s stores within a 10-minute drive and found certain power tool brands he couldn’t compete with price-wise. (“I couldn’t even buy them for what they were selling them for,” he said.) So he eliminated those from the mix and replaced them with others the boxes don’t carry.

Plumbing was a strong department for the store but it, too, was expanded to include decorative bath hardware and faucets. And the electrical section underwent one of the largest expansions. “What was once an afterthought in the store is now a full electrical department,” Burns said. “Sales in this department have improved significantly.”

While Johnson pretty much gave True Value free reign with the store plan, there were certain departments that he insisted be included—departments that have been part of the store’s allure in recent years. These include a gift department, which Cindy started a couple of years ago as an add-on to the lawn and garden section and which was expanded to about 700 square feet in the new plan. Some of the unique items presented here are birdbaths, porcelain dolls, decorative frogs and summer dresses.

“When Cindy wanted to bring in the dresses, I didn’t think we’d sell any,” Johnson said. “We sold six dozen the first year and 12 dozen last year.”

Johnson has also done a good business for the last decade in Boy Scout uniforms and related items. (He brought in the Girl Scout equivalent seven years ago.) When mothers come in with their children to buy the scouting-related goods, they are often drawn to other departments.

“Between the gift department, scouts and decorative hardware, we’ve got many women in the store,” he said. “Before the remodel, people would come in, get what they want and go. Now they will grab a cart and shop the store. It’s a really shopper-friendly atmosphere, and the design draws you from department to department.”

Johnson has built up a formidable business over the last 49 years, including about 500 commercial accounts with local stores, companies and small contractors. The customer mix is about 60 percent homeowner/40 percent professional. Other niche departments include full locksmith services with 4,000 keys and two service vans.

“The whole atmosphere is 100 percent more inviting. It’s like night and day, like a new store,” Johnson said. “The people who come in who haven’t been here in awhile say, ‘Wow, what happened? ’ They barely recognize the place.”