One of the most important facets of HWI's growth in the 1970s was the appearance of the home center. This type of retail store that joined the hardware business to that of the lumber and building supply retailer was unique to HWI from the late 1950s and can trace its lineage to the very beginnings of the company. When Arnold Gerberding was struggling to establish HWI from 1945 to 1950 he recruited more than half of his early members from among the lumber and building supply dealers in the Fort Wayne region. This in itself was unusual for a hardware cooperative at the time, but what made it even more extraordinary was the surprisingly easy flow of traditional hardware products into the sales rooms of the lumber/building materials store. Typically, a lumber dealer had little or no retail display area; usually, there simply was an order room with pick-ups at the warehouse door or yard. The members themselves began to change their stores once they became part of HWI and had easy access to hardware merchandise. Gradually, lumber/building materials dealers began to add hardware to their show rooms and expand these rooms into larger hardware retail spaces.
By 1957 the flow was slowly beginning to move the other way, too, with some hardware stores gradually carrying limited lumber and lines of building supplies, such as shelving boards, paneling, and cement, for the do-it-yourselfer. HWI responded by developing its circulars so that, depending on the store, the dealer could advertise whatever mix he felt was strong in his market. By the 1960s the example of the dynamic Banas and Wrobel Lumber and Hardware store showed how successful the home center concept could be. So, too, did the Munster Lumber Company in Munster, Indiana. By 1971 Munster Lumber had become a multi-million dollar business with about sixty percent lumber and forty percent hardware, and, as owner Tom Petso recalled, It was almost by accident that the firm got into the consumer home center business.
Hand-in-hand with these developments among the members, HWI analyzed the home center concept as a national trend and decided to position itself to promote and support the idea more aggressively with its own members. The company quickly saw that the home center approach became a merchandising spiral, with one area hardware feeding off the other lumber/building supplies, and vice versa. The cross- over traffic of customers was natural and consumers responded to it well. Furthermore, market studies clearly showed that the new and re-do market and the do-it-yourself movement were vigorous and rapidly expanding, despite strong inflationary trends. Other merchandisers saw the same thing and were impressed by the HWI experiences. By the early 1970s the old line chains were beginning to develop their own home center concepts. But the biggest challenge would come at the end of the decade with the appearance of the big box operations, such as Home Depot.
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