For locals in Charlotte, North Carolina, a trip to Blackhawk Hardware is more than just a pit stop on a long list of errands. The team strives to deliver quick and efficient service, but customers appreciate the store’s perks so much they like to linger.
“We focus on providing a great experience to those who shop with us,” says Blackhawk Hardware owner Andy Wilkerson. “People view coming to the store as something they look forward to doing and not a chore.”
Whether kids are playing with the store dogs, Nacho and Scout, or customers are enjoying a bag of free popcorn while they explore the housewares department, Blackhawk Hardware evokes excitement.
The business has been serving its community since 1977. Over the years, Andy and his parents, owners Barb and Jim Wilkerson, have focused on evolving with the changing needs of their customers.
Learn how the operation has changed over the years, discover the niche categories where they’ve found success and see how their investment in a strong company culture has set them up for a promising future.
Before Blackhawk Hardware opened its doors, Jim was a traveling salesman in the 1970s who was looking for something more fulfilling. As he was walking through a hardware store one day, he realized owning and operating his own hardware store would be a more rewarding path for him.
He immediately began researching how he could make it a reality and put together a business plan. About a year and a half later, he and Barb opened Blackhawk Hardware.
“We chose the name because we wanted our business to show up in the front section of the phone book,” Jim says. “It’s unique enough to remember and isn’t tied to a location. It’s been Blackhawk Hardware ever since.”
Their original building was about 7,500 square feet, but they could only afford to merchandise 5,000 square feet of the store at first.
Just as many of the store’s customers have fond memories of visiting Blackhawk Hardware when they were younger, Andy also has warm memories of growing up in the store and being a part of the business at a young age.
“My parents encouraged me to work outside the business to understand there are other ways of doing things,” he says.
“That experience allows you to see what your family business does well and what it can work on improving.”
After earning a master’s degree in industrial design, Andy started a career at an industrial design firm in Charlotte. He enjoyed what he was doing, but after a few years, he decided to return to Blackhawk Hardware to begin his career in the family business.
While Blackhawk Hardware is in the same shopping center as when it originally opened its doors, its current location is nearly ten times as large as the original store. Jim was constantly looking to grow the footprint of the business, and he found an opportunity to expand when the local J.C. Penney store moved to a new location in 1991. Blackhawk Hardware moved into the space the same year.
“Growing the salesfloor from 10,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet in one leap was an adventure,” Jim says. “It was a trial for several years but ended up being the best thing we’d ever done.”
In the past year, the business went through a remodel and expansion, opening up the basement of the building to expand the salesfloor. They added an elevator and are in the process of installing a spiral slide so customers can go from the main level to the basement.
“For us, it’s all about finding ways to enhance the customer experience, and we think something fun like adding a slide will help us do that,” Andy says. “It’s like the popcorn we give out for free, the store dogs that make people smile or hiring musicians to play out front—those things set us apart from the competition.”
For multiple generations of shoppers, the store has also gained a reputation as the place to visit for all things Christmas.
While they have a broad selection of holiday items, the Wilkersons chose to specialize in ornaments and tabletop decorations, and they take sourcing those items seriously. Barb and another buyer from the store typically fly to the Netherlands to visit a Christmas manufacturing warehouse each December to buy for the next holiday season.
“We try to offer products for the holiday season that our customers can’t find in most places,” Andy says. “The items are elegant, but not so expensive that our customers disregard them.”
Outside of the holiday season, top categories for Blackhawk Hardware include housewares and their kitchen shop, which features kitchen gadgets and tabletop dining accessories, as well as cabinet hardware.
“We started adding niches early on,” Jim says. “One thing I’ve learned is you really have to make a commitment when you go into something. You have to feel it out and see if it’s going to become a success, and sometimes you’re not sure if a niche will work.”
One niche that didn’t pan out for the store was wallcoverings. The store sold wallpaper for a while, but when the team realized it wasn’t lucrative, they focused on housewares instead.
“We are now up to 10,000 square feet in that category alone,” Jims says.
In addition to having an extensive housewares department, Blackhawk Hardware added a pet department that attracts local pet owners looking for high-end dog and cat food, treats, toys and an on-site iClean Dog Wash station.
“We’ve welcomed our customers’ dogs to shop with them at the store for years now, which our customers love,” Andy says. “So when we discovered this company that makes dog washing stations, we decided to invest and offer it as a service for our customers. It costs us 89 cents per wash and we charge $10, so there is a whole lot of profit in it.”
Taking Care in a Crisis
When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, the team at Blackhawk Hardware stepped up and helped provide their community with the essentials they needed.
“People were a bit on edge in the beginning, but overall they were just happy to be able to shop with us,” Andy says. “Our customers were great about respecting the rules and wearing masks, which helped remove that added stress of requesting them to put one on.”
In the following months, customers not only shopped in the store, but also bought new and unique items online through the store’s co-op and picked them up in store. The orders they placed helped the team discover new items to stock at Blackhawk Hardware, like the EGO Power+ products, a line of battery-operated chainsaws, blowers, trimmers and lawn mowers.
As more people were staying home, customers were buying more items to improve their spaces and enjoy the extra time at home. Grill sales at the store increased 50 percent from the year before.
Beyond adjusting to the new needs of their customers, a bigger challenge the Wilkersons faced was having half of their staff concerned about contracting the virus and choosing to stay home for their safety.
“We were doing much of the same business but with fewer employees,” Andy says. “It was a culture change, but our team came together, and we found ways to support each other and make it a fun environment to work in.”
Through the pandemic, Jim, Barb and Andy made sure that not only were their customers cared for, but so were their employees. The average employee at Blackhawk Hardware has been there for 14 years; some have been there 35 years.
“For us, culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Jim says. “If you don’t have the right culture and your employees don’t buy into it, your strategy won’t work. You can train someone about plumbing or electrical, but you can’t train someone on their personality.”
According to Jim, early on they realized they had a significant amount of older, retired people working for them who would be at a higher risk of getting sick. So Jim, Barb and Andy wrote a letter to their team of employees about how they would move forward. In the letter, they explained that the management team knew it would be challenging for many of the employees to work in person and asked those who could work to do so. They also said they would continue to pay anyone who couldn’t work.
“Our entire team who could stepped up and agreed to help,” Jim says. “Barb and I didn’t take a salary until the PPP loan came through because we wanted to make sure we could pay all of our employees through the pandemic. I can’t say enough about our employees looking out for each other. It really is a family here.”
While the last year had its challenges, the Blackhawk Hardware team became stronger and is seeing business return to normal. The next thing the Wilkersons are looking forward to is returning to industry buying shows that allow them to source great products.
Not only do trade shows allow the team to find great products, but also to interact with retailers in the home improvement industry as well.
“I’ve never met a bad person in our industry,” Andy says. “The retailers we’ve met are always willing to help us out, and we do the same for others.”