How do we get a small hardware store?

In March, I visited my family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My brother and I stopped at an ACE hardware store – this 30,000 square foot building had practically everything you would need for any home improvement. On my way out of the store, I wondered about the absence of small hardware stores in urban neighborhoods, including my own.

Why aren’t small-format hardware stores more common in cities? Competition from big box retailers (Lowe’s, Home Depot, et al.) offers a partial explanation.  The appearance of these retailers in suburban locations often forced an unprecedented level of competition for smaller retailers who struggle to match the product selection and pricing of these stores. Competition from online shopping has also probably reduced the demand for retail hardware stores.

But perhaps more significantly, the household markets for established small hardware stores have steadily declined. These retailers rely on relatively smaller market areas than big box stores – both in terms of the geography and the number of customers. Throughout the late 20th century urban populations declined while suburban areas grew. This meant fewer customers for small hardware stores in urban neighborhoods.

It can be easy to think of this as an accident. Although well-meaning people may not have considered the consequences of their decisions, the series of events that led to the disappearance of the small hardware store were not accidental or haphazard. In the late 20th century in the US, decisions regarding local transportation investments and land use caused the small hardware store to go on the endangered species list. These events are well documented in books like Suburban Nation.

Yet the question remains: how do we get a small hardware store?

It might start with a decision to embrace residential development in your neighborhood. If your neighborhood is zoned for single family homes on 5,000 square foot lots, it is practically impossible to support a small hardware store in your area. If your neighborhood has a reputation of opposing any proposal for multi-family housing or mixed use development, it’s unlikely that you’ll provide the sort of market that makes sense for a small hardware store.

You will also want to make sure that there is some space in your neighborhood that would permit a small hardware store to operate. This space will need the appropriate zoning, but more importantly, it will need to allow a development form that works for the business and your neighborhood. Often this means a geometric trade-off between the amount of floor area that can be developed and the amount of parking required by your city.

Your neighborhood may have some choices to consider if you want to attract a small hardware store. Are you willing to allow a higher residential density than currently exists? Are you willing to consider allowing fewer parking spaces on site? If your vision for your community includes small retailers who provide service to urban neighborhoods, then you will need to address these questions.

(The problems facing small hardware stores are not endemic to this industry. Retailers of pet supplies, books, toys, and a dozen other products face very similar situations.)

So next time you get jealous of neighborhoods that have managed to attract (or retain) their small retailers, remember that the rules governing development in your area may be a significant barrier keeping similar businesses out of your area.