Every home improvement retailer knows finding a niche—an area where they can focus and excel—is critical. Some business owners search high and low for a stellar assortment of products to captivate customers, others become specialists in home services to augment their offering, while some retailers draw from their local communities to find inspiration.
For Andrew Asselstine, owner of Asselstine Hardware in Verona, Ontario, finding a successful retail niche involved combining region-specific inventory with much-needed home repair services into a unique blend to boost sales and serve his community.
“I think these days in home improvement, you have to look for ways to diversify,” he says. “If you can provide products, services and customer service that really go beyond someone’s expectations, customers will always remember that.”
From stocking Canadian-made products to pursuing home repair accreditations and providing hunting and fishing licenses, Asselstine is always looking for new ways to cement his business’s place in Verona. Learn how he entered the home improvement industry 25 years ago and where he’s leading his business next in the years ahead.
Verona is a small town in Ontario, situated roughly halfway between Toronto and Montreal, Quebec in the Frontenac County. Asselstine, who was born in Verona and then entered the independent home improvement industry as a high school student, says Verona is a popular tourist destination thanks to its proximity to many lakes.
“Verona is located in the Land O’ Lakes region, which is a popular tourist destination for people from Toronto, Ottawa and the surrounding area,” he says. “We have lots of cottages and summer homes, so in the summer, the population rises and a lot of the time, Asselstine Hardware has what they need to keep their properties in working order or help them get out on the lakes with hunting and fishing licenses.”
One of the main ways Asselstine is involved with summertime vacationers is by providing well installations and repairs for rural rental properties. He holds a well technician license from the Ministry of Environment, which is required by law to operate on any well service project.
In addition to its well services, the business also sells and repairs large appliances for customers.
“Asselstine Hardware is a very service-oriented business, so we’re always out working on appliances for customers,” he says. “Between the well installations and repairs, we try to keep in mind what visitors will need during their stay.”
Though his team is relatively small with five employees, Asselstine says his well technician license helps diversify the business’s offerings. While he’s in the field, digging or repairing a well, he knows his team is back at the business, helping connect customers with products there.
Asselstine says his work on wells throughout the region has influenced his inventory, too. After getting his well technician license, he started carrying more related products in store, hoping to cut down on the time it took to get local wells in working order for vacationers. Now, his store boasts 36 feet of plumbing inventory on the salesfloor and has grown to be his top-selling category.
Not Far From the Maple Tree
Asselstine says he is always on the lookout for new products to add to his inventory. In the past, he’s stocked items on enthusiastic word-of-mouth recommendations, or brought in new products based on trends he sees in his appliance repair and well servicing jobs.
He sells a Canadian-made paint line, and says he’s always happy to stock as many Canadian products as possible in his store.
“I love seeing Canadian-made products on the shelves, but the vast majority of products these days are made outside Canada, simply because of the higher volume and lower costs other countries can achieve,” he says. “We stock Canadian whenever we can, but it’s unfortunately not always possible.”
One distinctively Canadian product category Asselstine Hardware offers is maple syrup collection inventory. Asselstine says this line of products appeals to locals and tourists alike, and enables him to sell goods that directly encourage shoppers to explore Verona’s natural beauty.
“When you visit Asselstine Hardware, you can get everything you need to do your own maple syrup collection,” he says. “It’s a longtime local tradition, but it really appeals to many of the tourists who visit the area as well.”
In order to collect maple syrup, Asselstine says first, you must drill a small hole into the southern part of a sugar maple tree trunk. Once the sun hits the tree, the sap warms and starts to flow throughout, eventually collecting through spiles placed within the recently bored hole. In total, it’s possible to collect about a gallon of maple sap from a single tree in a day.
Once the sap has been collected, one must boil it down to evaporate most of the water, leaving pure maple syrup which Asselstine says is an excellent addition to pancakes, cereal and ice cream.
“You can get everything you need to collect maple syrup from Asselstine Hardware,” he says. “We have pipes, spiles, buckets and drill bits and a lot of times, we sell those directly to visitors to the region. We have people who come to Verona for the weekend, and leave with about 25 gallons of maple syrup when the season is finished.”
Fishing for Sales
Another way Asselstine Hardware appeals to locals and tourists is through its ability to issue hunting and fishing licenses from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
“We’ve offered hunting and fishing licenses since we opened,” he says. “With the amount of tourists who visit the area, it’s beneficial for the business to bring them in our doors with the licenses. A lot of times, those licenses lead to add-on sales.”
In order to grant a license, Asselstine says an employee has to pass a short qualifying exam. Most of his employees are able to issue hunting and fishing licenses, and the company advertises its license issuing on its website, marketing itself as a one-stop recreational activity destination for out-of-towners.
“We get calls from the U.S. all the time during the summer, asking us about hunting and fishing licenses,” he says. “I think the licenses help not just my business, but other local businesses as well. I can issue them a license and sell some hunting and fishing gear, but we’re close to a gas station and restaurants, so I think the licenses benefit those businesses, too.”
Asselstine says his business spends the early days of summer preparing for the influx of visiting fishermen.
“We’re in the middle of the summer fishing season,” he says. “Walleye season opened a few months ago, so we’ve had lots of anglers stop in before taking their boats out.”
Asselstine also sees the potential for online advertising through social media. Recently, his team posted a photo of newly arrived hanging flowers in advance of Mother’s Day, and the post generated hundreds of impressions and increased foot traffic at the business.
“That was really a reminder of the power of social media,” he says. “I think that post made a lot of mothers very happy.”
Asselstine says his business would not be in the position it is today without the constant support of the Verona community. To repay that loyalty, Asselstine is involved in numerous local organizations, including the Lions Club and the Verona Community Association.
Each year, the business hosts a Lions Club “Day of Service” event where members grill out and provide food for the community. Asselstine says it’s a day he looks forward to each year, enabling him to bring familiar faces and new shoppers to Asselstine Hardware.
“I’ve had so much support from the Verona community over the years,” he says. “Whether it was a friend telling a friend about my business, or just choosing to visit me as opposed to a big box, it’s truly appreciated.”