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Expanding size, maintaining service

Mikala Clements (left), with sister Krista Scarborough, said their family-run Ace store took advantage of the co-op’s Vision 21 program to help expand.

Opportunity knocked for Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Scarborough Ace when the neighboring pet store in their shopping plaza closed. The family-run business saw not only an opportunity to expand its physical presence, but its customer service as well.

Alvin Scarborough, who already owned several lumberyards and a garden center, purchased the 10,000-sq.-ft. store in 1995. According to Mikala Clements, Alvin’s daughter, the family had been looking to expand the location for some time but abandoned that idea when the recession hit. When the adjacent Round Up pet store closed earlier this year, the family had a choice to make: Expand now while the property was vacant, or risk watching another business move in.

Closing the store for the four-month-long project wasn’t an option, especially given that the company didn’t want to rely on outside loans. Instead, they turned to Ace’s Vision 21 program, which provided them an attractive option to come up with the capital needed for the additional inventory.

Clements, who took over operation of the store from her father, said the 8,000-sq.-ft. expansion gave them an opportunity to refocus their efforts into customer service.

“We’re in a small town, and a lot of customers know our store,” she said. “You can get complacent. Customers come in and you kind of get to where you say, ‘They know where they’re going.’ It was a great chance to walk customers to their items again.”

And that service element was engineered into the new design of the store. The redesign put all workstations on the selling floor, so that even when employees are working on computers, they are accessible to customers. In addition, they’ve taken on four more employees to help with the expansion.

“I don’t want people in the back room or on the computer. I want them on the floor helping customers,” Clements said.

The expansion was not without risk, on the customer service side as well as the business side. Clements said one of her biggest concerns was that customers would view the expansion negatively, fearing they would lose the small hardware store environment that they were used to.

“We didn’t want our customers to think that because we were growing we were losing that customer-service aspect,” she said. “We wanted them to know that no matter what, even when we’re involved in the middle of a project like this, they’re going to be helped.”

Even so, it took some customers a while to get used to the new surroundings. Clements said many of her regulars initially reacted to the project negatively, but quickly warmed up to it once they saw the project coming together.

“I’d go home some nights really beat up from all the negative comments. I started wondering, ‘Why are we doing this?’” she said. “But as more and more got done, the comments started to shift to positive. I think that, as we were afraid of change, our customers were afraid of change. But now that they’ve seen that it’s cleaner; it’s more open; we have the same customer service, if not better, than we had before; the comments have become more and more positive.”

One of the ways she kept customers excited about the expansion was to let them see the progress. Letting customers walk through the construction area wasn’t an option, so they opened a window in the wall separating the old store from the expansion, and allowed customers to peek in and see what the new store would look like.

“The excitement was there. Customers wanted to see what was going on, we didn’t want to take that away from them. We didn’t want to stunt our opportunity for growth by not letting them see the process. We couldn’t let them come over here, but we could let them peek through and see what was going on.”

The expansion also allowed the store to offer a greater selection to its customers. Clements said they expanded their grill and lawn and garden offerings, took on new product offerings like outdoor and lawn furniture and expanded their brand offerings by taking on Benjamin Moore and Stihl.

“In this economy, it’s a scary thing to take on a project like this. The only way we could succeed was to increase our customer count,” she said.

She said both new lines have already helped increase customer count and sales by at least 25%, a conservative estimate, according to Clements. She said the Benjamin Moore brand has been a top seller, partly because so many home design magazines feature the brand’s colors prominently.

“We’ve had it for about five or six weeks now, and we’ve already had to re-order quite a few times,” she said.

The store’s location, isolated from big-box competition, also allowed their expanded patio furniture, grill, and lawn and garden offerings to perform well.

“Our closest Home Depot is 10 miles away, and you have to fight traffic morning and night. So, even though they may get a slightly better price, it’s not right across the street. We’re in a pretty lucky area.”

The family recently extended the store’s hours to 8 p.m. to keep up with customer demand. Clements said that before, if customers needed anything after 7 p.m., they’d have to take the long drive out of town to Home Depot or Orchard Supply Hardware.

“Why send someone there if we can stay open an extra hour? We want to keep them in-house,” she said.


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