IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In one town, local stores outlast Home Depot

Two hometown hardware stores in Vermont outlasted the Home Depot that once threatened their business.
Beating Home Depot
Wayne St. John, one of three brothers that own Fireside True Value in Brattleboro, Vt., sells a lawn tractor to David Dunn, of Dummerston, Vt., Friday ,May 2, 2008. The store, which St. John said is thriving, is located across the street from one of 15 Home Depot stores the company announced it was closing Thursday. Jason R. Henske / Jason R. Henske
/ Source: The Associated Press

When a Home Depot set up shop across the street, Fireside True Value hardware store owner Wayne St. John knew it would probably take some of his customers away.

He and his brothers, who've operated their store for 35 years, had heard the stories about big box stores and their low prices driving competitors into the ground.

So the store stuck to what it does best — good customer service, competitive prices and a willingness to stock that hard-to-find part folks never seemed to find at the big building with the orange roof.

Four years later, it's Fireside True Value that's still standing.

"I've had a lot of customers come in and say `You guys put them under," said St. John.

In truth, many factors played a role in the closing of Home Depot store No. 4552 and in the Atlanta-based home improvement giant's decision to close 14 other "underperforming" stores whose annual sales averaged about $11 million, far below the $36 million desired by the company.

Among them: Opposition from grassroots groups that succeed in stirring up boycotts and bad publicity even when they don't stop the stores from opening.

"We've seen big box stores defeated in over 200 communities in the last two years," said Stacy Mitchell, author of "Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses."

"Campaigns are proliferating and even if they don't succeed, the public education they do often has a significant impact on people's shopping choices after the store opens," Mitchell said.

In Brattleboro, an artsy southern Vermont town (pop. 11,741) known for its left-leaning sensibilities, Home Depot was a public enemy before it even opened the store in a former Ames' department store 1 1/2 miles from downtown. Small by Home Depot standards at 60,000 square feet, it was sandwiched in between two other Home Depots — one across the river in Keene, N.H., the other in nearby Greenfield, Mass. — within a 30-minute drive.

BrattPower, a citizens' group, fought to keep the home improvement retailer out, saying its bargain prices and sheer size would siphon business from local businesses. Long-time residents in Brattleboro collected thousands of petition signature opposing Home Depot.

Loyalty to existing businesses also played a role.

“The customers we have were more against Home Depot than we were,” says Robert Putnam Sr. who manages Brown & Roberts, the family-operated Ace Hardware store downtown. The store,beloved by locals for its creaky wooden floors, peg-board displays and attentive personal service, couldn't compete with Home Depot's prices on some products, but many customers continued going there anyway.

"That first year, business was flat," said manager Paul Putnam, 59, who runs it along with seven other family members. "We haven't had a banner year in their four years here, but we've managed to make it. Good customer service, having friendly, knowledgeable employees, that's always been our strong point."

Neither store changed its merchandising strategy or price structure to compete with the new store in town, believing that customers would stick with them. For the most part, they did.

"Last week, I had to get a part for my kitchen overhead vent," said Dan Rubchinuk, 26, of Putney, shopping for gloves and a coffee press Friday at Brown & Roberts. "I call here and they spend five minutes on the phone with me. I call Home Depot and spend 15 minutes on hold while the person tries to figure out what I'm talking about."

Home Depot spokeswoman Jean Niemi wouldn't comment on the common traits shared by the towns where the stores will be closed. They're not blaming sales strategy or local opposition, saying lackluster sales were the bottom line.

"There were a number of things we looked at, but it came down to that," said Niemi from company headquarters in Atlanta. "We regularly look at the financials of stores throughout the company. Those were the 15 that just weren't meeting the return."

Last Friday, arriving customers were chagrined to find a sign saying the store was closed in preparation for a liquidation sale to begin Saturday. Dave Ingalls, 47, of Brattleboro, came looking to buy indoor-outdoor carpeting for his childrens' play area.

He said he'll miss the store.

“It's close by and they have a lot of stuff that's right there and right on display that you don't find at every hardware store. You don't have to drive all over town looking for this or that,” he said.

A contractor NBC interviewed was disappointed, saying “Home Depot was the one place you could go when everybody else is closed.”

Others will miss the store too. About 80 jobs will be lost in the closing.

The surviving local stores, however, foresee a spike in their long-flat earnings despite the sluggish economy.

"Here's a hometown True Value that outlasted the big-box store," says Glenn St. John. "That's exciting."

NBC's Mike Taibbi contributed to this report.