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Survival of the fittest

The comment board on the Toledo Blade newspaper’s website takes a simple story of a closing hardware store — Fleeger’s PRO Hardware — and turns it into a tragedy and a mystery.

Tragic because of the loss of another business in downtown Toledo. Fewer jobs for fewer Americans. A way of life eroded. Mysterious because — well, who was to blame, really?

A poster named CindyS has little doubt and little sympathy, in her comment titled “survival of the fittest” — “If these local mom-and-pop operations can’t hack it in the business world, they NEED to go out of business!” she wrote.

Her post ends thus: “Good riddance!”

Ouch.

While CindyS came to bury Fleeger’s, others came to praise it. Case in point was a posting from “gjones,” self-described as an employee for the last five years. Owner Laura Fleeger-Koenig, he said, was a master motivator and sympathetic manager.

“Customer satisfaction was priority No. 1, no question. It was ingrained in her by her father and uncle who started the business.”

The store bought locally and even promoted other businesses for free, in its store newsletter, gjones said.

A long list of others praised the service, the people, the help and the memories. “Viracocha,” still has the cactus plant bought at Fleeger’s store in 1977.

Then again, the lengthy list of comments included a few grudges. One was from a former customer, still upset after all these years that the store didn’t accept his out-of-state check.

And there’s a former employee chiming in that he didn’t get a fair shake from the owners.

In their totality, the variety of viewpoints on the demise of an independent hardware store is more valuable from a business perspective than the typical case study found in the Harvard Business Review. (Read it all here.) 

But more than that, the postings read like a novel. And an important theme shaping all of the action is the impact of the large national home centers. 

As the final chapter of Fleeger’s comes to a close, the biggest story in home channel retailing continues to play out. The story is simple: It’s the intense competition and uneasy coexistence between the national home centers and the independent hardware stores.

There are many independent retailers under many banners that can claim exceptional growth — even during our downturn in housing, and even in the face of national competition.

On the following pages, Home Channel News editors offer examples of some high-performing Ace stores that are winning the battles in their markets.

Let us state our position clearly. Home Channel News encourages, supports and lends its voice to the spirit of retailing diversity. The more outlets, the more options, the more companies, the better for us all.

We pause to remember Fleeger’s PRO Hardware’s contributions, and the contributions of stores like it that have passed into memory.

And we move on.

kclark@homechannelnews.com

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