In an age of computerized inventories and modern technology that are a part of nearly all businesses, one Fort Smith hardware store is bucking the trend with a pencil and some paper.
Walrod's Hardware, located at the intersection of Midland Boulevard and Division, has been a staple of the community since 1987, when owner Jerry Walrod set up shop at the store's original location at Fresno and Jenny Lind.
The original Walrod's Hardware stood at that intersection from Oct. 1, 1987, until Sept. 13, 1992, when Walrod said the building owner wanted to tear the building down and allow a grocery store to be built at the back of the property, meaning he had to move and move quick.
"I had 15 adult volunteers, I had three kids, two ladies that worked for me part-time and a blind man and I told him he couldn't drive the truck. I told him I already had a truck driver," he said with a grin.
The merchandise was all moved in one day, establishing Walrod's as the north side's neighborhood hardware store for the last 21 years.
And in those more than two decades, Walrod has established his store as not only the go-to place for anything a customer may want or need, but he has also established his store as the place to go when a customer is seeking knowledge and experience. Walrod said it is not a slight to his competitors, but instead points to his knowledge versus that of possibly younger and more inexperienced staffers at other hardware stores.
"Customers should be assured of finding some quality merchandise and definitely some help that they can utilize," he said. "A lot of the stores that they go to today – a lot of them are younger folks. They just don't have the experience yet and you end up being discouraged because you can't get any real help."
Walrod said customers have come to respect not only the level of knowledge he brings to the store, but also that of his one full-time employee, C.J. Blair.
"CJ's been with me 17 years and I mean, I'm not afraid to leave him here by himself and do frequently."
Blair, who came to work for Walrod during his senior year of high school, explained that it's not only knowledge that customers seek from him and Walrod, but also follow-through.
"When we start with a customer, we stay with them. We get them what they want. We get them in and get them out, you know?"
Walrod and Blair know where every hammer, wrench and screw are located in their store by heart and keep the store's books by hand, itself an impressive feat.
"We pretty well know when we've got to have something," Walrod said. "When I forget something, he (Blair) remembers. If he forgets, I remember. It just seems like we play off of each other all the time. No, it's not a computerized system. …I had a computerized system when I first started and it seemed that with the amount of customers I had at the time, I was wasting a lot of time and paperwork."
And while Walrod's system may have simplified the inventory and accounting for the store, it has become more and more of a challenge when he attempts to place orders with his various suppliers, the largest of which is True Value.
"What I'm having trouble with now is my suppliers are high tech. I'm low tech. And my suppliers are saying the computers are telling them no, we don't need to stock this item any more because it's not selling well, it's not making us money. So it is making it more difficult for me to obtain merchandise."
But it is becoming increasingly harder for small mom and pop outfits like Walrod's to keep up in the digital age and the age of big retail.
A September 2013 report from IBISWorld says the U.S. hardware market is a $22 billion industry, with an estimated 16,386 businesses and more than 140,000 employees.
And while IBIS says the recovering national housing market will boost business for hardware stores, consumers are turning more toward the big-box outlets.
“The industry will continue to face challenges, despite an improving economy. Competition from big-box home improvement stores will threaten operators, with consumers choosing to make purchases from stores that offer a large variety of products and convenience,” noted the IBIS report.
The report also notes that no single company has more than 5% of the U.S. marketshare.
‘AIN’T NO MUSEUM’
For the uninitiated, Walrod's may look like a store with a lot of merchandise and even more memorabilia, stacked in every nook and cranny imaginable. But Walrod himself pointed to a sign in his store that reads "This ain't no museum. Everything's for sale."
And everything means everything.
"And I have in fact had to sell a few things because I've got that sign up there that I had really intended to keep. But it's been good and people enjoy it."
With so much merchandise placed in every free spot in the store, it can be a challenge to navigate the narrow aisles. But Walrod said there is no safety problem, having passed fire inspection each year, though he admits the fire department will just let the store burn should it catch fire.
"I try to follow the rules. You've got to have your fire extinguishers where they will work. I have been told by the fire department, though, that if this place ever catches on fire, they're just going to shoot water at it. They're not coming in because it is so tight. If something catches on fire, it can fall and hurt them. But we've not had any accidents like that at all. We've not had any accidents. I know it's packed up in here high, but we try to make it as secure as possible."
NO PLANS TO RETIRE
As for how much longer Walrod, who did not disclose his age, would keep chugging along at his little hardware store on the north side of town, he hopes to work until he meets his maker, though he admits his work pace has slowed since having a heart attack just a few years ago.
"Well, I've told customers this for years. I think it's been written before, too. I hope to live to be 102 and fall dead waiting on my next customer. But now I have this defibrillator, and it won't happen because momentarily I'll be gone, and a minute later this thing is going to hit me real hard and I'll be back to say, 'Have a good day.'"
Whenever he does go, it is anyone's guess as to what will happen to the hardware store. Walrod said he is open to possibly selling it to one of his grandkids if they're interested. Granddaughter Ella has taken an interest in the store and has helped her grandpa ring sales on Saturday mornings. But there's one other person who may be interested in the store, as well.
"One of these days I might even own the store," Blair said.