16 Dec Member Profile: Dirk and Amanda Swanson at Strand Ace
In 1975 the Swanson family purchased a 2,000-square-foot store in Escalon, a town of 7,000 in San Joaquin County, about 100 miles east of San Francisco. That first store had been an important part of the city since the mid-1940s.
Later in 1975, they moved into a 6,000-square-foot store in downtown Escalon and became fixtures in the community. In 2006, sensing an opportunity to expand, the family moved to the edge of town and built a new 16,500 square-foot store.
“It was pretty big,” Dirk Swanson admits with a laugh. “It was like, ‘Man, how are we going to fill this building?’ But we did.”
The family wasn’t done. “In 2015, we built another building right next door that housed all of our outdoor power equipment. That building is about 12,000-square-feet. So, now we’re sitting on 30,000-square-feet with a Garden Center between the two buildings.”
The Swansons’ most significant move came this year when they opened a 45,000-square-foot store in Modesto in a location that was once an Orchard Supply Hardware.
Dirk and his wife Amanda, who are the third generation to run the family’s hardware business, took some time to speak with CRHWA to talk about their company’s growth, challenges, and future.
Q: Is the whole Swanson family still involved in the business?
A: We are very much a family business. My father runs all of our books and accounting. My grandparents still come in almost daily for a couple of hours. I don’t think they’re ever going to leave! (Laughs) They love it down here, and they love interacting with everybody. Amanda runs our scheduling and HR work, while I oversee operations at both locations. We have two phenomenal store managers, also a husband and wife team, Ron and Tammy Pitts who have over 30 years in the hardware industry.
Q: So, this might be a silly question, but it wasn’t that long ago, your family was worried about filling a 16,500-square-foot store, and now you’ve got 45,000-square-feet. What was your pathway to success?
A: Well, in Escalon, it was a long-term process. We stocked what the community was asking for, and then the things that interested us, we knew that it would interest them. As far as the new store, Ace helped us out quite a bit with the layout and plan to get that store filled. We work with a lot of outside vendors as well, and a lot of local companies, so we’re able to bring in our local culture. That’s pretty neat and something a lot of big retailers can’t do.
Q: What’s your competition like in Escalon?
A: For the majority of our business life in town, there were three hardware stores, but a lumberyard just recently closed down. There’s a True Value store about a mile away. There are no big box stores.
Q: How far is your service area?
A: We get customers from the foothills in Sonora, all the way up to Stockton and down to about Turlock. We’re a Traeger platinum dealer, so people come here for all of their barbecue supplies. We do the repair and maintenance and service on all the Traeger grills. So that has really helped pull people in from further distances.
Q: How many people are you employing?
A: On average, we have about 30 in Escalon and 60 in Modesto. We’ve been able to bring on some great managers, team leaders, associates, and cashiers. When we’re out around town, people are constantly stopping us, telling us how wonderful our staff is and how much they love coming into our stores.
Q: Do you have trouble finding people?
A: We had trouble the last two years, but when we announced we were opening in Modesto, we got bombarded with applicants. We got about 2,000 applications in three months. Now we have one website for both stores. The applicants can pick which store they prefer — it’s only about 15 minutes between stores.
Q: Your stores are in big farming communities, right?
A: Yes. We’re in a big dairy area, and almonds are booming right now. We carry Stihl and Husqvarna. We sell a lot of chainsaws, garden tractors, and blowers. Then we sell a lot to the homeowner crowd, walk-behind mowers.
Q: How did you all pick Ace?
A: We became part of Ace back in 1975 before I was part of it. We’ve been extremely happy with them and like the future that they’re looking towards. They’ve been so supportive of us and all the other retailers around.
Q: What was it like taking over the OSH location in Modesto?
A: We’ve been looking into a second location for about two years now. We had two different markets in mind. Modesto was on the top of the list. We weren’t looking at going into such a big footprint, but when Orchard closed, we knew immediately that we wanted to get into that store.
That store itself was always beautiful. It was heavily trafficked and is in a great location. We made some phone calls to Ace, and we also personally knew the landlord of that shopping center. He’s been a customer of ours for quite some time. So, that was very good for us as well.
Q: The communities were not happy when those OSH stores closed. Did you hear that when you re-opened in Modesto?
A: Absolutely. We still get calls from people who say, ‘I heard you opened that Orchard Supply in Modesto. Can you come open one up over here?’ It’s shocking how many people miss having a hardware store in their neighborhoods.
When we announced that we were going in there on Facebook, the post had over 2,000 shares. Everybody was extremely happy. On our first soft opening day, we had over 1,500 customers.
Q: I was going to ask you about how you market your business, but it sounds like people are already in tune with your business.
A: Yeah, it’s always easier to go into a place that already has a market rather than trying to build one. But, we’ve done a lot with social media. We have a woman that handles that for us. She promotes that we are a family-owned and family-run business. People connect with that, and they like to shop with people they know.
Q: CRHWA members talk a lot about competition from the Internet and big-box stores. How are you all meeting that?
A: Obviously, Amazon is hurting everybody and taking shares away from everybody. We are constantly holding store meetings and huddles to get our team to be aware of that and to let them know that the more connection we make with customers and the more that we can go above and beyond to service them, the more likely they are to come back. So, the next time that person comes in, we ask, ‘Hey, Joe, how did that plumbing project go?’ Customers connect with that, and that’s something they definitely aren’t going to get online or for any big box store.
We also do a lot of events. Our biggest event that we do is called Party on the Patio. We’ve been doing that in Escalon for the past five years. Essentially it’s a customer appreciation event that gives us a chance to clearance all of our patio furniture at the end of the year. This last year we got about 600 people, and we raised about $4,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network at UC Davis Children’s Hospital.
Q: What else have you guys done that’s helped build your business?
A: We opened ourselves up to do deliveries. We have two delivery vehicles now, and they’re running daily, whether it’s delivering barbecue grills, riding lawn mowers, soil, or wood pellets. Since we do repairs for Traeger, we’re picking those up and bringing them in. It’s been a good way to convince those customers that are on the fence. ‘Hey, we’ll deliver this to you.’ I think that it’s helped our business. It was a big decision. We had to make an investment in vehicles and insurance and everything.
Amanda: But, customers expect to have things on your doorstep, and now we’re able to do just that.
Q: Did I understand that you stock products from local businesses? How did you find them? How do they get in there?
A: It all depends. We get vendors calling us like on the daily. We always try to take the time and learn about their products, especially if they’re local. One product that we’ve had for five years… We never fathomed how good it would do when we first got approached with it. That’s frozen pies from a local company called The Pie Company. We sell on average between the two stores, about 400 pies a month. We’ll double that during the holidays.
Q: Hold on. I’m processing this.
A: (laughs) I actually got to give my father all the credit for this one. One of our customers, who’d been a customer for quite some time, owns the pie company. He came to us, and my Dad said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll try it.’ Both me and Amanda thought he was crazy. We got rid of a copy machine upfront that we were making two cents per copy on, and they dropped off a freezer full of pies. It’s one of our top items in the store.
Q: So, how many pies did you sample before getting them into the store?
Amanda: Well, they have 12 flavors… (they both laugh).