Web-only retailer picks a bricks-and-mortar fight with its big-box rivals

March 31, 2011 10:02 AM

Power Equipment Direct Inc., which competes online against major hardware and home improvement retailers, has opened its first bricks-and-mortar store, picking a location in the Chicago suburbs that is down the street from The Home Depot, Sears and Lowe’s.

“A lot of our competitors are on the same strip we’re on,” says Jon Hoch, founder and CEO of Power Equipment Direct, which is based in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, IL, and is No. 302 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide. The store is also located next to Power Equipment Direct’s warehouse, enabling the small store to provide instant access to most of the items sold on the retailer’s nine e-commerce sites.

Hoch started his company in 2003 after he wasn’t able to find and buy the lawn mower he wanted in a large home improvement store, he says. His online strategy has been to provide customers with a wide selection for each of his product lines. He plans to employ that same strategy to compete with the big chains in the bricks-and-mortar world.

“Walking out of one of the big chain stores with the exact product you wanted is unlikely, but when you walk out of our store you get exactly what you want,” Hoch says. “The big-box stores offer small, medium and large, and maybe 10 pieces in each size for a few brands, but in our place we offer every single model under the sun in every size and variation.”

The new Power Equipment Direct store launched in December as a pop-up test store for the snowblowers Hoch sells through By February, after store sales of snowblowers exceeded expectations, Hoch decided to make the store permanent and offer shoppers his full line of products. In addition to lawn mowers, snowblowers and pressure washers, the retailer also sells air compressors, chain saws, electric generators, log splitters, sump pumps and water pumps—each category with its own e-commerce site.

Although the new store is small compared to its big competitors up the street, it’s set up to provide a level of service its larger rivals can’t match, Hoch says. Perched on a busy corner in a Bolingbrook commercial area, the new store has a staff of five on-site customer service reps who assist online as well as in-store shoppers.

The store is adjacent to a warehouse Hoch uses to fulfill online orders. For most products not available for sale on the showroom floor, shoppers and store clerks can use an in-store kiosk to choose a particular product from one of the retailer’s web sites, then have that product brought in from the warehouse for immediate delivery. Hoch figures he typically has on hand about 80% of the products customers want; the other 20% can be ordered from suppliers.

“We envision this will be like shopping for a car in a showroom,” he says. “Some models are on the floor where customers can kick the tires, but the exact product a customer wants may be in stock outside the showroom.”

Hoch is marketing the store offline through Yellow Pages listings and a couple of highway billboards, but says that many local shoppers become aware of the store after searching on the web for power equipment and seeing the notice of his store opening on his corporate site, He says he’ll consider opening additional stores if this one proves successful.

Hoch will speak at the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition 2011 in a session entitled “Prioritize your way to success.”





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