Sulphur Springs, Texas — “Let me show you something.”
That’s how an employee at Fix & Feed Sulphur Springs Hardware greeted a reporter who was visiting the store about 80 miles east of Dallas on a hot July weekday. She marched to a back room of the 20,000-sq.-ft. hardware store to a door marked “Keep this door closed at all times,” and led the visitor inside.
“Here is where we make the fudge,” she said.
On the shelves are pans of Oreo fudge, Snickers fudge, maple nut, even a sucrose-free fudge formulated for diabetics, all of which are merchandised in a fancy case near the entrance.
“From what I understand, the profit margin is about 300%,” said Sharon Stacey, whose duties at the store include making the fudge. “It’s profitable, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. I get in here, and I just rattle a pot and pan.”
The phrase “profitable and a lot of fun” goes a long way to describe the scene at Fix & Feed, which operates three locations in East Texas — Sulphur Springs, Commerce and Bonham. And the fudge program is a good indicator of the retailer’s willingness to try new things and differentiate itself.
Owner Bobby Hill is the gregarious proprietor who started in the hardware business kind of by accident. He bought a small shopping center with 12 stores in 1995, and felt a hardware store would be a good fit for the center and the community. He tried to recruit hardware retailers from surrounding areas, but with no luck. So he started one himself.
“It was extremely overwhelming,” he said about starting up. “I remember thinking, ‘Can I do this? Can I just jump into this?’ ”
His record provides an answer. Since the first store opened in 1996, the retailer expanded to Bonham, Texas, in 2003 and Sulphur Springs in 2006, which relocated to a larger location in 2010. “In all that growth, there’s a lot of learning,” Hill said. “There’s still a lot of learning to be done.”
“I had retail experience,” Hill added. “I had a couple of convenience stores and a service station earlier in my career. Customers, I knew. Retail, I knew. But I didn’t know hardware.”
One valuable resource from the beginning, Hill said, has been the chain’s longtime hardlines supplier, Houston-based Handy Hardware Wholesale. One of the first things Hill did as a hardware store retailer was to attend Handy’s market, and then turn to Handy’s regional district manager for advice. “We actually used Handy to guide us,” Hill said. “The regional district manager would say, ‘You need 16 ft. of plumbing, faucet and repair parts,’ and we would go to the vendors and get those sections set up.”
Fix & Feed’s growth has come aisle-by-aisle, along that same model, he said. When the stores branched out beyond hardware categories — animal health, for instance — the learning process started over from the beginning.
Currently, one of the big initiatives for Fix & Feed is an inventory management project.
“We have completed, however not perfected, installing a system. It’s still a challenge, but technically, we can pull up an item and see if we have two or 10, or two or 10 in another store.”
Managing inventory ranks with managing the employees as the top two challenges, Hill noted. The economy? “We don’t have tract builders in our store. Most of our business is smaller customers,” he said. I think the economy is less important when you have that for a customer base.”
One constant at the East Texas business is customer service. The store is open 13 hours a day, seven days a week. That policy goes a long way toward being there for the customer.
“The customer-service reputation that we want is the feeling that people can get in, get what they want, and get back out,” Hill said.
Another differentiator in a small town shared by Tractor Supply, Atwoods and even a Fastenal next door, is staff morale. It’s fun to work at Fix & Feed, according to Stacey, who also said many of the customers are friends. “It’s a laid-back experience. The fact that we’re an independent hardware store, we don’t have a big corporate name, we have Fix & Feed, three stores. And we are hugely successful in a market that is glutted with agri-business and building supplies, and we’re very competitive with them.”