Re-Tooling the Business 

Local retailers prepare to do battle with big-box stores

While the newest neighbor on Missoula’s North Reserve commercial corridor is putting the final touches on a massive 130,000-square-foot retail space, established hardware stores are left to wonder about their future on the local market.

Home Depot, Inc. of Atlanta will add to its current total of 930 outlets worldwide and open Missoula’s largest home improvement store early this summer. And while the $38 billion per year corporation sees itself as a good and conscientious neighbor, long-established local stores and smaller chains know they could be in a fight for economic survival. Reactions from the locals range from hurried preparations to wait-and-see.

Some, like the homegrown Boyce Lumber outfit have made plans to spiff up their operations before the orange giant hangs its sign. Boyce, started in Missoula in 1937, has decided to sink $1.5 million into their Russell and Mount location for a new drive-through warehouse and revamped retail center.

“We had a choice to make,” Steve Boyce said at a recent City Council meeting dealing with expansion projects. “We could cash it in or make a stand.” Boyce officials say their expansion will see a completed warehouse in the next few months and a renovated retail center finished some time next winter.

Others, meanwhile, are preferring to stick to their guns.

Local home improvement center Ziegler Building Center won’t be expanding its smaller operation to compete with Home Depot, but expects that its 12-man customer service team will give his store an edge, says manager Keith Albert. “Zieg’s” West Broadway location—one of 17 family-owned operations in the West—has employees at the door to help a customer get what they need and get them back to work, Albert says, while a person might get lost in a big store like Home Depot.

“It takes you a half-hour to get in and a half-hour to get out,” Albert says of the “box-store experience.”

And still others say they believe that there is room for all comers to town. Home-improvement stalwarts Ace Hardware, Inc. say they are looking forward to taking on Fortune magazine’s Most Admired Specialty Retailer.

“We welcome them to our community,” says Gwen Pearce, Ace’s Broadway Avenue store manager. “We’re not scared. We’re not overconfident.” Pearce says that while Ace is not taking any extraordinary measures to prepare for a fight for customers, she believes that the burgeoning Missoula area can accommodate more competition.

“To see your hometown go from a little logging town to what it is now is amazing,” says the Missoula native, who remembers the days when ducks and geese, not shoppers, bustled about what is now North Reserve.

Other retail giants on the west end of town see Home Depot as another attraction to the consumer landscape. Officials at Costco say that their wholesale offerings won’t conflict with Home Depot’s, and, if anything, the home-improvement center’s opening will add more pull to the area that both stores inhabit. Wal-Mart appears to want a piece of the action, too, and is in the planning stages for a mammoth 200,000-square-foot superstore on the corner of Mullan Road and North Reserve Street.

But what does the landing of a multinational corporation mean besides new jobs and more things to buy?

Home Depot’s company statement says that its financial success allows it to practice a tenet of Judaism called “tzedakah”—“to give back.” According to a company rep, many of their 150,000 employees volunteer to help efforts such as building playground or assisting in disaster relief efforts. The company, which earmarked $15 million for volunteer activities in 1999, also employs nearly 100 Olympic hopefuls in a special work program.

But local companies stress that they are also active in the community.

Lori Cornwall of Boyce Lumber says that every one of her fellow employees is a volunteer for groups ranging from youth baseball to Big Brothers & Big Sisters. Cornwall herself is active in the Hugh O’Brien Leadership Foundation, which hosts a three-day conference for high schoolers from around the state. In addition, Boyce Lumber donates $7,000 in materials and $4,000 in cash each year to local charities and volunteer organizations, she says.

Home Depot also has received attention for their much-heralded environmental policy that asks their vendors to follow sustainable forestry practices outlined by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international consortium of environmentalists and timber interests.

But Ron Ramsey of Intermountain Lumber on Russell Street says that, while trying to be “green” is a good marketing technique by Home Depot, it isn’t necessarily that much of a distinction.

“The [timber] industry as a whole does a good job harvesting and replanting,” Ramsey says of Intermountain’s Northwest suppliers. His store, one of 56 across 10 states, sees itself in a slightly different market than Home Depot, he adds, because Intermountain Lumber primarily supplies contractors.

So while the amount of Missoula’s new growth may ultimately determine who stays and who folds in the local hardware market, the addition of an industry superpower will cause somewhat of a crunch.

“I’m not saying we’re not afraid,” Albert says.

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