Loyalty gains the victory for smaller store Personal touch: Customers remain true to small Clarksville hardware store, then help owners move into failed competitor's larger building.

February 01, 1996|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The threat to the future of Kendall Hardware began four years ago when Zimmerman's Home Center -- a much larger, newer hardware store -- plopped itself 400 yards away on Route 108.

But there was room for only one hardware store in Clarksville -- the smaller one.

And so on a rainy and foggy night two weeks ago, the neighbors and friends who helped the 3,000-square-foot business succeed assisted the Kendall family -- Hugh and Sandy Kendall and son Steven -- with moving into the 30,000-square-foot quarters that once housed their competition.

"I'm still pinching myself," said Sandy Kendall, who joined the hardware business when she married Hugh 30 years ago. "It's something else."

Secret is loyalty

The Kendalls say customer loyalty is the secret of their success, as well as the challenge to their future.

"It'll be hard keeping that personal touch in a store this big," said Steven Kendall, 27, who has pictures of himself in a crib in the aisle of the old store.

"We probably knew 85 percent of our customers by name at the old store, and we'll try to do the same here."

The family touch has been a way of life for the Kendalls since Hugh's father, Charles, opened the original store in 1947, when Hugh was 8.

At that time, it was a general store, geared toward a rural community. After his father died, Hugh focused more on hardware, selling to farmers and contractors.

In January 1992, Goliath arrived to threaten David, with Zimmerman's Home Center opening a mere two stores away.

Part of a three-store, family-run chain, Zimmerman's offered a greater selection of general merchandise and additional products such as lumber and window replacement parts.

Growth slow to come

"We weren't this huge monster set out to eat the little guy," said Gary Zimmerman, who manages the store in Burtonsville. "We knew that growth was supposed to be coming -- with the expansion of Route 32 and the River Hill [village] center opening -- and thought there would be more traffic."

But that growth was slow to come, and Zimmerman's soon discovered that customer loyalty ran toward the smaller, older store.

"When the new store opened, there wasn't any question where we would go -- we would all keep going to Kendall's," said Jack Sullivan of Highland, who grew up with Hugh Kendall.

"I went to Zimmerman's twice, both times because Hugh sent me there, saying they didn't have it, but the other store probably did."

Fifty people help

And when the little store took over the big store, the customers offered their helping hands and empty pickup trucks.

Fifty people arrived at the old Kendall store about 5 p.m. Jan. 18, while its cash registers still were open and it still had merchandise on its shelves.

By 9 a.m. the next day, the little store was open in the larger facility.

"It was just incredible. Hugh talked to his camping group and Steven asked some members of his church group to come and help," Mrs. Kendall said. "But people came out of the woodwork from nowhere."

Because the new store is 10 times bigger than the former one, Kendalls also bought Zimmerman's inventory, fixtures and merchandise -- and hired eight Zimmerman's employees to help with the larger store. Steven Kendall wouldn't estimate the cost of the move, but said family members won't be taking vacations soon.

Meanwhile, some things haven't changed.

Family roles

Mrs. Kendall sits at the information desk, surrounded by payroll paperwork while the family's pet dog lounges in an upstairs office. Hugh Kendall works toward the front of the store, helping people choose paint and find the right size nails, and Steven Kendall works toward the back, helping customers pick cabinets.

Mrs. Kendall said the new, larger facility will succeed because the family will continue to value the customers who have taught them so much in the past.

"Our customers are our best teachers," she said, directing someone to fence materials.

"The odd request here is more than the exception. But when you put two heads together, the parts and bits and pieces work themselves out."

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