With the first wave of baby boomers retiring, woodworking retailers are riding the trend toward do-it-yourself, one-of-a-kind projects.
Customer Craig Thaemert of Hugo, left, and Rockler store manager Kim Rothlisberger watched a CNC cutting machine demonstration put on by employee Dave Wallace at the new Maplewood store last week. Rockler Woodworking and Hardware’s grand opening in Maplewood will be on Saturday.
In an era of super-sizing and big-box retail, Rockler Woodworking and Hardware is working both with and against the grain.
The Medina-based company just opened its first superstore, an 11,000-square-foot location with a glass-enclosed demonstration area. But compared to a 200,000-square-foot hardware superstore, Rockler’s new Maplewood flagship could resemble a storage shed in their lumber yard.
“We’re a niche business,” said CEO Ann Jackson, the daughter of founder Nordy Rockler. “We’re not going after the contractor or the fixer-upper. This is for people who want to make something unique.”
Rockler and other specialty woodworking stores such as Woodcraft in Bloomington are crediting the first wave of baby boomer retirements for record or near-record sales. As some boomers retire, they’re focusing their planning, organizing and executing skills on tinkering with a creative project or hobby, said Dave Brennan, marketing professor and co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas. “They still want the emotional satisfaction that goes with doing a job well,” he said.
Rockler isn’t the only Twin Cities woodworking retailer to experience this trend. Timothy Roseth, who owns Woodcraft in Bloomington, said his average customer is a 55-year-old male with disposable income who’s soon to retire or already retired.
“It sounds stereotypical, but it’s often the guy whose wife wants him to get a hobby because he’s underfoot at home.”
Revenue was between $100-$150 million in 2012, Jackson said, with the highest-performing stores in densely populated areas of California and New York.
Large demo area
Rockler’s new Maplewood store offers customers from master craftspeople to beginning hobbyists a way to get their project done more efficiently. It has a large, glass-enclosed demonstration area complete with bleachers for observers, includes one-third more inventory, more products exclusive to Rockler, and 10 “try-me” or video workstations.
“We’ve never had a store with a devoted demo area this big,” said Mike Dugan, vice-president and general manager of retail operations.
But it’s not just baby boomers who are driving Rockler’s expansion, according to Dugan. “We’re taking advantage of the customizing trend,” he said. “Whether it’s woodworking, clothing or cooking, people want to make or embellish something to call their own.”
At Rockler, that could mean buying casters to add to a Pottery Barn table, knobs and pulls to transform kitchen cabinets or choosing one of hundreds of colors to change the finish on a piece of furniture.
For customer Tim LeBore of Maplewood, it means assistance with crafting writing pens or wine bottle stoppers or working a scroll saw. “They have a lot of knowledgeable people who work here,” he said. “And they have stuff that I could never find at a big hardware store, like a bit to drill a square hole,” he said.
Where Rockler strives to pull away from the hardware superstores, according to Dugan, is in customer service. “Competitors like Home Depot are built for speed,” he said. “Our conversations with customers can last 30 to 60 minutes.”
The Maplewood store may become a prototype for other stores around the country, but they’ll need a year to see how it performs, Jackson said. “We’re looking at multiple formats — large, medium and smaller stores,” she said. Most of the stores are about 5,000 square feet.
The challenge in a niche business is that store locations have to be in highly populated areas, Brennan said. Another is to draw millennials and Gen Y customers into the store or to the website.
“We want to get people started with their hobbies early in life,” said Dugan, “whether they’re crafting a skateboard, duck caller or an end table, we want to get them now.”
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633