Changing of the Guard

The world has certainly changed since Marshall Burns started his small shop in Fall River, Mass., in 1934. Burns, the 83-year-old "Saw Man," still shows up every day, but his sons Spike and Jeff are running things now. Walk through the modest tool showroom to the oiled, aged saw shop in back for a glimpse into the past, where Marshall built a business around his hand-tempered saw blades.

But beyond world-renown blades, Burns and his sons have created a long, rich history of personalized service that has earned undying loyalty from generations of customers and set standards modern stores strive for. Services new shops boast about, like pro-level tool lines, on-site tool demonstrations, on-site repairs, loaner tools, custom grinding, full-range sharpening, jobsite pick-ups and deliveries, and even machine repairs in customers' shops, started a long time ago in small tool shops like Burns Power Tools.

The same can be said for Chas. H. Day Co. in Portland, Ore., founded in 1925. While this store is one of the oldest, it has grown and changed with the times. And even though it now covers an entire city block, its core business is still the same: parts, service, and repair. And then there's Seven Corners Hardware, started in 1933. This third-generation family-owned business is huge with a vast inventory, yet people there pride themselves on the same kind of first-name-basis service you might have expected 60 years ago.

You can almost measure it by looking at the changes every tool category has gone through over the same time period, going from miter boxes to compound miter saws, Yankee screwdrivers to cordless drills, hammers to pneumatic nailers, and transits to laser levels.

And so the evolution of the World's Best Tool Store has reached an interesting point, where its future meets its past. On the one hand, modern stores with spacious, brightly lit showrooms borrow from history to provide services handed down through generations, while on the other, stores long legendary for such services stock tools they'd never dreamed of and use computers to track inventory. Of course, the common denominator is service.

Personal Service

Berland's House of Tools is a perfect example of a store keen on personal customer service. From the moment you walk into this awesome Lombard, Ill.-based store you get full attention, whether you're on a scouting mission or are ready to buy. Sales reps practically jump from behind the sales counter to help you and strike the perfect balance of being there to answer questions without hovering over your every move. They'll put your need to find the right tool ahead of their need to make a sale.

That's a common trait the best stores share. For example, salespeople at Montague Tool & Supply in Montague, N.J., don't work on commission. That takes some of the pressure off the sale and puts the focus back on service, according to Tom Meyer and Susan Stark, the husband-and-wife team that owns this beautiful store.

Alaska Industrial Hardware (AIH), based in Anchorage, has a different approach to getting its sales staffs at the company's eight large locations to take care of their customers: The company is employee-owned. "Everybody in each store has a stake in our service," says AIH general manager Mike Kangas. "They're completely focused on our customers."

This kind of service starts with a strong commitment by a company's leadership to put the customers first, and faith that doing so will build customer satisfaction, loyalty, and trust. "It really boils down to building relationships and trust," says Hal Look, vice president of 45-year-old Orco Construction Supply, one of the largest full-service companies in the country. Orco operates 20 locations in California, Nevada, and Arizona. "As big as we are," Look says, "we still try to provide small-store service."

Harvey Neu of Neu's Building Center in Menomonee Falls, Wis., agrees. "We build relationships with our customers based on communication," he says, "with the emphasis on listening."

One thing that tool distributors nationwide are listening to more of these days is Spanish. So to provide better service to the growing Hispanic customer base, they're hiring bilingual service reps to work the counters and hit the jobsites. "There's been an incredible increase in Hispanics on our jobsites," says Orco's Look, "so we're gearing up. We always try to have one or two bilingual people at the counters, and we're publishing our materials in English and Spanish."