Taking a tour of Jared’s Ace Hardware with Jake Smith as the tour guide is a little like a small-town mayor leading a parade down Main Street.
Around every corner is another community member with a greeting or a question, and Jake is right there with a handshake and an answer. Whether it’s a local contractor coming in for the second time that day or a homeowner with a leaky pipe, Jake knows their story and takes them right to the aisle they need.
That knowledge and friendliness extends well beyond the walls of Jared’s Ace Hardware. It’s rare for Jake to be out in the community without bumping into someone he knows, whether a regular customer or an employee on her day off who is thrilled to see him.
Bishopville, South Carolina, is home to just over 3,000 people, but the reach of Jared’s Ace extends beyond the town. Since Jake’s father, Jared M. Smith III, opened Jared’s Farm and Home Accessories in January 1953, the business has been a staple from Main Street to the surrounding rural areas.
“My father and his dad had been in the grocery business together, and they had the opportunity to buy a feed store from a cousin,” Jake says. “They spent quite a few years looking for their identity, and it morphed into a full-line hardware store over time.”
Jake—whose full name is Jared M. Smith IV—was born just two months after that feed store opened, so he has never known any other industry. In 1966, the building the Smiths were renting that was home to what was then known as Jared’s Hardware was sold. Fortunately, a larger building was available for sale directly across the street. The Smiths purchased the facility, and it was home to the business for the next 37 years.
When the business moved into its new location, Jake’s father decided he needed an employee. So, in September 1966, when Jake was 13, he started working in the family business after school and on Saturdays; he was his parents’ only employee.
“We truly were a ‘mom and pop’ store,” he says. “Just mom and dad ran the business until I joined as a young teenager.”
And Jake’s commitment to the family business endured through college, and even when he worked at various wholesale companies afterward. Because of where he lived, the store was in his territory, so he called on the business for sales for five years.
Coming Back for Growth
In 1981, Jake returned to the business full time to take over operations. Over the last 40 years, he has led the company through additional growth, including adding a second store called Crossroads Outdoors that specializes in outdoor recreation equipment and clothing.
The original store location was about 2,000 square feet, and when the Smiths purchased the new building in 1966, they were able to double the square footage. In the 1990s, an addition nearly doubled the salesfloor again to just over 7,200 square feet.
In 2002, there was a need to expand once again, and this time, Jake pursued a ground-up build. He purchased acreage on the edge of town, where there is still opportunity to grow, and built the Jared’s Ace that exists today: a 16,000-square-foot building with an outdoor space for bulk and bagged goods, propane pumps, a storage room and a side room that will eventually transition with the seasons.
“When I came in and essentially became the operator of this business in 1981, I was wet behind the ears, green as grass,” he says. “However, I don’t feel I’ve gotten stagnant over the years because I spent three years as the manager of a 4,000-square-foot store, then I spent 15 years as the manager of a 7,200-square-foot store, and now I’m 19 years in at a 16,000-square-foot store. There were big changes in the paradigm with each expansion, so I was able to grow as a manager along with it.”
The growth the business has seen over the last 40 years has been through a combination of community expansion and product mix differentiation to meet those residents’ needs.
Jake says Jared’s Ace wouldn’t be where it is today without the support of his wife, Marie. She taught public school for 21 years and left education in 1996 to join the business full time. Jake’s mother, who had ruled the lawn and garden area from day one, was ready to shorten her work week. She and Marie worked together in the department early on before she turned it over to Marie full time when the business moved to its current location. Marie continued to grow the area until retiring in 2018 to become her mother’s caregiver.
The store today offers more parking and more outdoor space, which allows Jared’s Ace to serve more of its rural customers than they could in the downtown location.
“We now have space to sell the things our community members need access to, like propane and concrete steps for mobile homes,” he says. “During the holidays, we have space for live Christmas tree sales, which we never had room for in our previous locations.”
Jake says offering all of these products and services in one location is something retailers in rural areas need to prioritize because of the limited options residents have otherwise.
“In a rural community like ours, a hardware store has to be all things to all people. There simply aren’t five other choices with five unique product assortments,” he says. “Residents here have to have someone they can depend on to stock all those things you can ask for.”
The store currently stocks about 42,000 SKUs across the core hardlines categories and other niches that the community needs. Jake says the store’s vast product mix and its location on the edge of Bishopville brings in people from many surrounding areas, some as far as 10 to 15 miles away, twice a day.
“We’re in a great community, and they have certainly been good to us,” he says. “I guess it infers that we’ve been good to the community because they are loyal to us. Being a good neighbor is a basic of being in independent home improvement retail.”
Despite the business’s reach, when it comes to expanding his customer base and knowing where people are shopping, Jake says identifying his competition can be challenging.
“I wish our competition were like a dart board, and I could know I’m hitting it,” he says. “In reality, it’s more like you’ve given me three darts and put six dart boards around the room and told me I’m supposed to hit my target.”
Bishopville is in the center of four towns, all of which have their own hardware stores, Jake says. What those towns have that Bishopville doesn’t is the challenge.
“Those towns also have department stores, clothing stores and hospitals, so many of my customers by necessity have to drive outside Bishopville for those products and services,” Jake says. “Our marketing effort is about getting people to bring their list to us before they go out of town for the rest of their needs.”
Jake uses the marketing programs offered by his co-op to keep the store top of mind in the community.
“We are going to more digital advertising, and thankfully, the mix of advertising options Ace Hardware offers has worked for us,” he says.
Jake says there is also an opportunity to attract new residents who flocked to rural areas at the start of the pandemic. It’s an opportunity other retailers shouldn’t ignore in their own communities, he says.
“Over the last two years, the pandemic has people thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be shopping where there are 500 other people there at the same time,’” he says. “How we treat those people when they come into our stores is going to decide a lot of what happens over the next five years. If we let folks see we are their neighbor, they’re going to stick with us, and we’ll gain market share against the big boxes.”
With the growth the industry has seen since 2020, Jake says he budgeted flat for 2022 over 2021, but that would still represent astronomical growth from where they were just three years ago.
“We’ve had two years of way beyond what the industry normally sees as market share came back to us from big boxes,” he says. “We’re 27 percent larger than we were in 2019, and that could be the chunk we’re going to get. I’d like to say we could grow another 5 to 10 percent, but I would be happy with flat.”
Despite the store’s sales growth, the business hasn’t been immune to the issues facing retailers today, including supply chain disruptions and labor shortages. Operations that aren’t committed to new sourcing strategies and creating an attractive workplace culture will not endure, Jake says.
Jake’s management team has changed its strategy to ensure they have an engaged, capable staff in place. Jared’s Ace Hardware general manager April Rembert is in charge of hiring, and Jake says she’s changed her practices to help them maintain operations.
“Previously, if we had one opening, we might interview three people for it and offer it to one. Now as a general rule, we rarely have just one opening, we usually have two or three. We now do several interviews, and if there are five people who might do a good job, we might hire all five,” he says. “We know things might change. All five might not stick it out, or we might hire for three openings, and we’ll have four or five openings by the time they start.”
Jake says another part of the hiring strategy retailers should focus on is how their business is viewed in their community as a place of employment.
“We’ve had to learn how to do a better job presenting our business to potential employees and communicating to them what it’s going to be like on their first day and how they will contribute to the overall team,” Jake says. “Our management team has also overall become more flexible. They are dedicated to doing their jobs, but they also know that the job they are doing today is not necessarily the same job they had two months ago.”
While Jake’s management team handles hiring and personnel, he manages purchasing for the operation.
“I like doing purchasing because it keeps my finger on the pulse of the business, and allows me to see exactly what is being sold,” he says.
Over the last two years, Jake’s strategy has been simple: diversify your suppliers.
“Supply chain has been a moving target. We don’t know where we’re going from here,” he says. “We have been more diligent about asking about replacement items and being willing to try multiple brands. It’s crucial that you’re asking the right questions.”
Another key issue that is top of mind for Jake is succession planning. He says he has a plan in place for the future of Jared’s Ace Hardware, but he’s not sure how many of his peers have made the same investment.
“There are still places that I go with my peers where at almost 69 years old, I’m still one of the younger ones. I’m not at all worried about where we’re going here at Jared’s Ace,” he says. “But not every retailer has plans.”
Acquisition in the industry is at an all-time high, and Jake says retailers who want their stores to stay around but haven’t executed a succession plan could become part of bigger chains, but they need to be sure they have strong operations first.
“I think over the next several years, mom-and-pop stores are going to become multistore chains,” he says. “I think the good ones are going to have somebody who wants to add them to their group.”
With over 40 years of experience leading his family business, Jake is more than prepared to lead NHPA as its chairman, bringing awareness to the association to work toward its mission of helping all independent home improvement retailers become better, more profitable operators. Jake says he had always had a lot of interest in NHPA, but when he was invited to join the board of directors in 2015, he thought there wasn’t as much awareness of the association as there is today. Through his tenure as chairman, Jake says he will be passionate about furthering NHPA’s reach in the industry and encouraging retailers to engage with each other through the association. He says forging relationships with peers, regardless of wholesale affiliation, is a critical need in the industry, especially in challenging times.
“You won’t find a bigger advocate than me for what NHPA does for the retail hardware and paint industry,” he says. “As chairman, I want to ensure every independent hardware and paint retailer knows that they are welcome to call NHPA at any time for the betterment of their businesses. Whether you’re looking for help on tough decisions or just a wealth of advice, NHPA is there for you.”
Identifying and leading peers through key industry challenges is the primary tenet of the association’s mission, and that leadership has never been more critical than in recent years. As he considers what it means to lead the association this year, Jake is focused on tuning in and listening up, the same strategy that has likely earned him his reputation in Bishopville.
“To me, it’s a natural next step to get involved and do what I can to share whatever expertise I have that is worthwhile to others. I want to be a part of making the industry as a whole better,” he says. “Listening is a secret to success, so if I have any influence at all here, I want to be sure the organization continues to listen to retailers and offer the guidance it has provided this great industry for over 120 years.”
4 Retail Basics From NHPA Chairman Jake Smith
Are retail basics the same for all operators? Jake Smith says there are certain fundamentals he thinks all retailers should take into account to run a strong business.
“As much as I like to think I run a good business, I have never assumed we’re the best. I think retailers are intuitively doing the same things we’re doing. Get out there every day, look at the core details and emphasize that in your business,” he says. “If these aren’t basics to you, give me a call.”
- Don’t hold on to backstock. If you have product, put it on the floor.
- Stay aware of pricing. Price-check your competitors to be sure you’re current.
- Keep your store clean. Make sure your staff prioritizes cleanliness.
- Prioritize people. Make sure your customers know they’re the most important people in the store.
All Around Bishopville
Take a tour around Jared’s Ace Hardware and Crossroads Outdoors here.