More than a hobby for many of Cornell’s True Value Hardware’s customers, canning is a lifestyle, a cultural tradition and a bonding opportunity for family and friends. Cornell’s is located in the New York City suburb of Eastchester, New York, and many of the families in Eastchester and the surrounding areas take part in traditional tomato canning each summer. These families count on Cornell’s for all their canning supplies.
Mary Beth (Fix) Wellington owns the business with her brother and cousin, and the store has been in the Fix family since the Great Depression. Since that time, it has served customers from near and far with a robust canning niche.
“I remember when I was working here as a teenager, the Italian housewives who didn’t speak much English would come in and purchase canning supplies,” Wellington says. “A generation later, many of those same families are still getting together each summer to can tomatoes, sometimes 20 to 30 cases at a time. When tomato season comes along, it’s a big boom for us.”
Discover how the owners of Cornell’s True Value Hardware took an already flourishing housewares niche and made it even more successful by offering a ripe assortment and reaching new customers with varied marketing strategies.
Expand Your Audience
Cornell’s True Value Hardware capitalized on the canning audience right outside their doors. Retailers who don’t think they have a built-in, nearby audience for canning supplies like Cornell’s can still take advantage of the recent canning trends to build an audience.
During the initial lockdowns at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, sales of canning products at Cornell’s doubled, as more people started canning as a hobby to pass the time. Even before the pandemic, canning was increasing in popularity as a hobby, but Cornell’s and many other retail operations have sold an unprecedented bumper crop of canning supplies in the past year.
“Sales went through the roof last year, and we could have sold triple the amount we normally do in a year,” says Wellington. “We had people driving from two hours away to buy our canning products because they couldn’t find them anywhere else.”
Wellington says the store also had many customers coming in looking for mason jars for crafts, as some canning products double as supplies for popular arts and crafts projects. She had customers looking for jars to paint them, put lights in and use for other creative projects. She doesn’t expect this trend to end anytime soon and plans to stock as many canning supplies as possible this year.
Cornell’s True Value Hardware was also able to serve another unexpected audience during the pandemic—local restaurants looking to buy quart-size jars to package different food items to sell to customers.
“Since they couldn’t be open during the first weeks and months of the pandemic, these restaurants turned to selling customers to-go soups, sauces and other foods to stay afloat,” says Wellington. “I had restaurants calling me asking for 12 cases of jars at a time.”
Along with tomato canning, Wellington says she is seeing more customers who are looking for products for pickling, such as pickling salts and spices, and supplies for making and canning jams and jellies, like different types of pectins.
“I sell a fair amount of jelly jars and accessories around Thanksgiving and Christmas, as customers are making and giving jelly as gifts during that time,” she says.
Get the Word Out
Many of Cornell’s customers shop there because of positive word-of-mouth recommendations in the community, and the store reaches additional customers through creative marketing and intentional online advertising. Cornell’s has a page on its blog dedicated to canning basics, which provides step-by-step instructions and tips, plus a list of all the supplies rookies need to get started with the hobby.
John Fix III, Wellington’s brother, handles the store’s online advertising, setting up Google Ads and implementing search engine optimization strategies so customers can easily find the store online when searching for canning products. Wellington says they’ve had numerous customers find the store thanks to this strong digital strategy. The team also regularly updates the store’s social media accounts to stay connected with customers and promote products and upcoming events.
While Cornell’s does not deliver, customers can buy online and choose curbside pickup. The store website lists available canning items so customers can see what products are for sale and how many are in stock.
“Especially in the last year, we have had a lot of people ordering online and picking up curbside. We did 1,475 curbside transactions from March through December 2020 and 39 of those were for canning products,” Wellington says. “Our customers knew we’d put it aside when they ordered online, so they knew they could get what they needed when they needed it.”
Start With the Basics
The selection of canning products at Cornell’s has grown and evolved over the years to fit its customers’ changing needs. While Wellington still sees customers coming in each summer looking for their tomato canning supplies, in recent years she has seen an influx of customers wanting to buy products for other types of canning, for freezing and for crafts.
“I’m getting more requests for canning products for pickling and making jellies,” Wellington says. “I also sell a lot of decorative jars, like the quilted ones, for people who want to give their finished products as gifts. These are great for the store because the prices are a little higher so the margins are better.”
For retailers who are just starting out in this category, Wellington suggests stocking plenty of mason jar bands and lids. A new lid is required for each use, and the bands need to be replaced every few uses, so canners go through a lot of these accessories.
As far as the jars themselves, Wellington says she always stocks the pint and quart sizes, in both the regular and wide-mouth varieties, and also the jelly jar size. No matter what you decide to stock, Wellington says the key to their success is getting your orders in early.
“I’ll order in February and sit on the product until the summer when we have our tomato canning rush. You have to get your orders in early if you want to have any stock,” she says. “I’ll order more than I think I need. Some years I’ve been caught with more than I can sell, but usually I sell out by the middle of September.”