Neighborliness as an equalizer

Family store takes on the hardware giants with first-name service

When Jacqueline Allen goes to the hardware store, she's often looking for solutions, not merchandise. That's why she likes Harvey's Hardware in Needham, Mass., where the minute you step inside the door somebody asks how they can help.

"They won't sell you something you don't need," she says, recalling a recent case of being advised not to buy a brass-handled storm door.

Many consumers are migrating to the hardware superstores, but Mrs. Allen and her husband enjoy doing business where the clerks recognize them, a phone number (not a credit card) is all that's required for billing, and a newly purchased ladder is delivered to their home "not like a week later, but a half hour later."

Customer service and old-fashioned neighborliness are the flotation devices that allow Harvey's and other mom-and-pop hardware stores to swim against the tide of competition from hardware giants like Lowe's and Home Depot. (See story at right.)

"In a small town like this, you treat people right, give them the right product and the right advice, and people will come back because they're comfortable with you," says Gary Katz, president of Harvey's.

The business was started by his dad as a tiny paint-and-wallpaper store in 1953.

Harvey Katz continues to work in the suburban Boston store. "Supposedly I'm retired, but I got very bored hanging around the house," he says. "I like being around people and it's great working with my two boys [Gary and Jeff]. I feel very, very proud all the time."

It's not easy battling the big-box stores, the Katzes acknowledge during an interview after 6 p.m. closing time (the store opens at 7 a.m. except Sunday, when it opens at 9).

If you go by the book, Harvey's Hardware appears to be "doing everything wrong," says Chris Jensen of Do-It-Yourself Retailing magazine. It carries too much stock, hires too many people, and has no off-street parking of its own. Still, the store's bottom-line performance is way above average, Mr. Jensen says.

Again, it's service with a smile. that spells success, says Harvey, whose father and grandfather were in the hardware business.

Although the store's customer base extends to neighboring towns, including one that had a branch store for a time, the Katzes say it's important to live in Needham. That way customers think of them as "townies," not just businessmen (the brothers were born a block from their store).

This requires a good-neighbor attitude, which can mean answering calls for after-hours advice, retrieving a new sump pump late at night, or simply agreeing to keep a door open and a light on after closing for customers who call ahead to say they're running behind schedule.

People who take advantage of this neighborliness, Jeff says, "may not come back again, but they're sure to tell someone else."

Situated at a central intersection across from town hall, Harvey's is a town landmark. As such, it is bombarded with requests to support local causes.

The general rule of thumb is, if it's a Needham group, Harvey's will help. Exceptions are made in order to maintain good relations with out-of-town patrons.

Although Harvey is pleased his sons have taken over the business, he prodded them to go to college. Both earned business degrees at Boston University, where Jeff earned the nickname "Gizmo." Gary's high-school-age son, Josh, works in the store three days a week and appears to have the hardwaring instinct.

The brothers are home handymen who share their tips selling to walk-in customers. They enjoy the trust shown them and a core of regular employees, some with long service records. "I can sell a toaster to a customer in the housewares department and take the same customer to the tool aisle and sell them a circular saw," says Gary, who considers the store's compactness a plus for time-strapped clients.

While personal service is an obvious strength of many local hardware stores, Gary Katz claims pricing is often better than anticipated too. Harvey's is a member of Ace Hardware's buying co-op, which gives the store better buying power than it would have alone.

"I tell people to take a basket, [load it with] a variety of items at my store, and do the same thing at Home Depot," Mr. Katz says. "I think they'll be very surprised at how close the two [cost] figures come out on the bottom line."

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