Cruise the aisles of Rick Parker’s store in historic downtown Richmond, Ind., and you’ll quickly know what he’s about: Fun.
From the old-fashioned soda machine in the store’s Italian market all the way up the wooden stairs to the blues club on the building’s fourth floor, Parker has made a point to make sure his business is something he enjoys. Doing that, he says, is what keeps customers coming back to his store from across the state and beyond. “We decided since we weren’t making the millions we had hoped, we’re going to have fun with it,” he says.
Parker’s store started from humble beginnings as a wholesale hardware business in a van. “We were about as small as you could get,” he says, adding that he started the initiative with only $600 of his own money. After calling on hardware stores for product sales, business gradually grew to include industrial customers, a barn with no door to house inventory and eventually a physical storefront, Richmond Hardware. Through the years Parker expanded from the store’s original location to its current location, a historic, brick building in downtown Richmond. “As we see opportunities we’re taking them,” he says.
More recently, Parker made some additions to be more in-line with his “fun as business” philosophy. An Italian market was first on the list, and with that came a retro revamp of the store’s product offerings. Parker combined Maria Mitrione’s Italian Market with Richmond Hardware to make Ed and Elizabeth Parker’s General Store. From old-fashioned toys to a full deli menu of sandwiches and pizza, the store’s offerings have made it a true destination stop within the community.
Investing in Fun
Parker has found a way to utilize his historic four-story space for maximum efficiency and fun. The store’s charm is notable throughout the first floor from its decorative tin ceiling and green columns all the way down to the restored hardwood floors. He stores inventory and back stock for the hardware business on the second floor, and the third floor is home to Parker’s sign, banner and screen-printing business, which also creates the vintage signage and fixtures on the salesfloor. Customers have noticed the added personal touches they find in the store, he says. “For our older customers it takes them back to when they were kids.”
But it’s what’s on the fourth floor that gets Parker most animated. The 4th Floor Blues Club started first as an investment but also as another way to relax and have fun. On any given weekend, the club—complete with classic arcade games, elevated stage and full bar—houses live entertainment or private events.
He’s even got his six grandchildren in on the act. To advertise the club, Parker fixed up a car to look just the iconic Blues Mobile made famous by The Blues Brothers to drive around town. “It catches peoples’ eyes, and they want to know where those people are going to have fun.”
More Than Just the ‘Same Old, Same Old’
While expanding into new niches has made the store a destination for customers, it also has its challenges. For one, adding Maria Mitrione’s Italian Market has forced Parker to learn more about how the food industry works, which he says has taken some extra work. But that hasn’t fazed him one bit; and the work has so far paid off.
Customers consistently rave about his selection of deli sandwiches, made-to-order salads, take-and-bake pizzas, offerings at the espresso bar and hand-dipped ice cream, he says. In fact, for him, running the market alongside the hardware and general stores has just been another part of the fun. “We spend our hours here, so it hasn’t intimidated me that much from that perspective,” he says. “What drives me is something that’s new and keeps changing, so that’s what’s fun.”
Parker says he also has noticed since tearing the wall down between the market and hardware store that more customers are coming in to shop; the store never really had that crossover traffic before.
While adding giftware and gift card lines has attracted more women to the store, men still count on strong assortments of tools and paint at the hardware store. “The paint department is back now to our No. 1 department,” he says.
But it’s not just the market and general store that attract customers to his store. New products across all categories, including all the traditional hardware departments, are what drive the store’s niche in the local market. The store features 9,000 square feet of retail space in the main room and an additional 2,000-3,000 square feet in a back room to house all the essential hardware items and niche offerings.
To keep his product lines interesting for all types of customers, Parker buys a little bit from all categories from his distributors (primarily Orgill. Inc.) and gets ideas by attending markets to see what’s new. Even if the items he finds do not always make it onto the salesfloor, he still finds inspiration by looking at what else is out there in the market place.
Additionally, whenever Parker and his wife go out of town, they make a list of unique destinations to stop by and see what other stores are doing. Their travels so far have led the store to feature such unique offerings as a peanut butter-making machine and a hand-cranked meat grinder. The wide array of products he offers to make the store an experience for his customers is what Parker enjoys most about his line of work. “That’s why we’ve expanded into so many different things,” he says. “To me that’s more fun than the same old, same old.”
The Bottom Line
Parker’s goal is to expand more in to Internet sales as a way to broaden his market reach. “The bottom line is the fun,” he says. “We want people to come in and have a fun place to shop.”
Rule No. 1: Enjoy What You Do
Parker’s strategy for finding unique, new products as well as items reminiscent of times gone is at the heart of his plan to ensure that a visit to his store is a trip customers won’t soon forget. Shopping as entertainment is something Parker understands and embraces in all aspects of his operation.
To other retailers looking to branch out into a unique niche, Parker suggests by starting with what motivates them: What they enjoy doing. “If a guy has a hardware store and is dreading going into work, he’s probably doing something wrong,” he says. “If he likes fishing, get a fishing tackle department. …It all goes back to keeping it fun.”
Below are some of Parker General Store’s distinctive offerings and some advice for incorporating creative niches into a retail plan.
- Start Small. Parker got the idea to bring in a machine that makes peanut butter from a trip to a Chicago grocery store. When considering ideas that might be more unconventional, he suggests starting small. “Then gradually grow into things that seem to be working,” he says. “If it’s catching on, go with it. You’d have something unique.”
- Giftware and Groceries. Cookware and fresh ingredients like cheese, deli items and bread and impulse items like cards and greeting cards line the shelves in Parker’s market. Having a large assortment of hard-to-find food items and old-fashioned novelties keeps customers in the store and browsing and attracts more female customers, according to Parker.
- Cross-Promotion. Parker uses his screen-printing and sign-making business and blues club to his advantage to get customers in the doors. Creative advertising and cross-promoting events for side businesses are great ways to increase foot traffic and generate buzz on the salesfloor.