A pair of 4x8-foot windows make Howard Miller Jr.’s second-floor office a prime spot to survey what may be the world’s largest hardware store. The Miller family’s investment of at least $20 million certainly bought a ton: Within its 305,000 square feet—triple the size of a typical Home Depot—there’s an 1,850-square-foot model home, a John Deere dealership, 16 kitchen and bath models, facades of four homes, 75,000+ SKUs, even a pet and farm supply section. And all that joins a 38,000-square-foot drive-through lumberyard on the store’s lower level.

For more than five years, Miller and 11 family members plotted to do something many other dealers would regard as folly. But since its opening in April, sales are up 30% from the pace set last year at Hartville Hardware’s previous location. That’s more than double what the Millers deemed neecessary for the store to succeed.

“You can go duplicate [what we’ve done] somewhere else and it could fall flat,” Miller says. “When I think about how important what my grandfather did back in 1939 ... all that leading to this, it just seems like a lot of things have to happen along the way.”

It takes more than a bet to build a superstore that brings in the retail crowd while still drawing 40% of its revenues from pros. The Millers had the right pedigree: a successful and diversified business portfolio, four generations of community support, the foresight to stage the build-out with the economy’s build-up, and time to plan.

“We processed it,” Miller says. “We processed it to death.”

Local Destination

Hartville Hardware was built so big in part because of where it sits: next to five of its sister businesses on 200 acres just west of the village of Hartville, Ohio. While Hartville itself is quite small, it considers itself a part of the three-county Akron/Canton metro area. It’s also a short drive south from Cleve-land, and is a day trip for residents of the state’s capitol, Columbus.

Adjacent to the new hardware store are a 375-seat restaurant, a flea market, and a salad-dressing production facility. Those other businesses bring in 2 million visitors a year, of whom only 30% shopped at the old hardware store when it was located on the other side of Hartville. Granted, that store’s lower ceilings, narrow aisles, and hefty stock of tools and building materials weren’t much of a draw for the tourist crowd. But the Millers saw an opportunity in selling to that other 1.4 million if they could move Hartville Hardware next to their other operations, thus making the site even more of a travel destination.

Dual Service

What you first notice when walking into Hartville Hardware will depend on why you’ve come. If you’re picking up odds and ends for a project or want to remodel your kitchen, you’re likely to enter through the upper level and, thanks to low shelves and clean sightlines, can see through to the back. You might notice the rich, natural-toned color palette and polished concrete floor. If you have a good eye, you’ll see that parts of the perimeter wall are painted different colors and labeled to identify departments.

The retail level grades from home décor stage left to power tools and the John Deere dealership stage right. In the middle sits the ranch-style house, wired for lighting and fitted primarily with American-made products. On the back wall, the row of four home facades hide a two-story design center with seven designers on staff.

If you’re a professional builder or contractor, you’re likely to notice the ease of getting in and out. That’s because your entrance—on the store’s lower level with its own parking lot and back access drive—bypasses the retail traffic without cutting off access to the bolts, bits, and tools that are just up the central staircase to the main floor.

“If you want to promote the pro business, you can’t allow the contractors to stand in line behind the retail customers,” says Scott Sommers, manager of Hartville’s pro division.

Sommers’ team is in the process of adding an area near the free coffee station so contractors can have a place to begin their day and fill out their orders. At the other end of the lower level is a warehouse, similar to the concept used at IKEA stores, where contractors and serious DIYers can pick up common items such as cabinets and flooring at the point of purchase.

Also downstairs are five full-time inside sales reps for referral and walk-in customers, two more reps for the store’s remodeling-contractor sales program, and a bustling bullpen of five outside sales reps.

Adjacent to the pro level is a three-lane drive-through lumberyard designed by Portland, Maine-based Johnson Design Services. Its climate is semi-controlled and its floor is heated.

The family worked with Do it Best and corporate design and branding firm Interbrand Design Forum on the layout. The space also was inspired by visits to more than 20 dealers nationwide.

“Originally, we wanted everything to be closer to everything else,” Sommers says. “We ended up with a more female-friendly side of the store and a more male-friendly side of the store—a little more homeowner-driven, a little more contractor-driven.”

Still, Sommers and Miller agree that not much has changed from the way they did things at the old store. “The only thing we really added when we came here is the farm and pet area,” Miller says. “Other than that, we really took a look at what we were doing at the old store, went to every department and talked about what size it ought to be.” The result was about 15,000 more products. The appliance count grew from 35 to 200; bolts from 110 running feet to nearly 200; outdoor living from a greenhouse tacked onto the old store to a 15,500-square-foot display.

“We just took every area and asked: How can we make it the best we can make it?” Miller says.

Keeping the contractor happy is important to Hartville Hardware. It has plenty of competition from pro dealers such as Carter Lumber plus big-boxes, but Hartville noticed other local pro dealers had gone out of business and sensed an opportunity to grow.

So far, Sommers says, the pros’ share of total sales remains at 40%, albeit only 20% of the new store’s transactions. Most deal in residential new construction and remodeling. About 70% of pro orders are delivered.

Despite having to hire one-third more employees than anticipated–45 in all–Miller and Sommers say the biggest issue has been getting over the perception that customer service has tanked. Take out the new hires and the average full-time employee’s tenure is 16 years. Still, the 220-person team has more ground to cover and more people to serve. The store averages 5,000 visitors on weekdays and 7,000 on Saturday. When it first opened, the store saw 10,000 daily visitors for the first several days.

Does it Work?

“So you think we pulled it off, do you?” Miller half-asks, half-laughs. Sitting in his spartan office with a stack of framed newspaper and magazine articles about the family’s latest business move leaning against the olive-green walls, he seems reluctant to draw any conclusions from the praise the store has so far received.

The Millers hired local contractor and family friend Ellis Erb and his son Tom to head up construction on the project. Ellis says his team initially estimated the total cost of the project to be approximately $20 million—that’s about $17 million for the building and attached lumberyard, $2 million for the dirt work needed to reconcile a 12-foot drop and wet land, plus an unknown figure for interior finishes. Add to that the price of increasing inventory by one-quarter and factor in any losses incurred by shutting down the business for two days to accomodate the move over to the new facility.

The Erbs built the store’s first location in 1974, when the fledgling company expanded from its former owner’s shop to a 22,000-square-foot block building with 18-foot ceilings, tacking on pole-building additions over the years. Ellis also knew the senior Howard Miller and owned the land on which the flea market and restaurant now sit. So when he sold some of those 200 acres to the second-generation owner Howard Miller Sr. 15 years ago, he figured the company was prepping for long-term growth.

Although plans for the hardware store were on the boards as early as 2007, the project team slowed work on the new store during the downturn. As their market (one of the recession’s harder hit) improved, they pressed forward. In doing so they grew their footprint from 200,000-square-feet on one level with the drive-through lumberyard to its current size. “It was a process,” Miller says. “If we’re only in this thing for another 10 years, it doesn’t make any sense to build a new store. But if we’re in this for the long haul we’ve got to do something different. Most people felt the economy would come back by 2012 and we wanted to be ready.”

Miller says low materials prices, a competitive interest rate on a bank loan, and a parent company willing to fund one-quarter of the cost helped to make the project a worthy bet. So far, along with the 30% growth in store sales, evening sales are up by one-half, picking up foot traffic from the restaurant next door.

Could the idea work elsewhere? Miller’s still not sure.

“We talked about a second location. But I don’t know how you’d duplicate something like this or how it works in another community,” he says. “Why wouldn’t it? I don’t know why it wouldn’t.”

Big Specs

Hartville Hardware melds a big footprint with concentrated ideas on how to better serve its customers. The Do it Best member worked with the co-op and the global corporate branding firm Interbrand Design Forum on the layout and value-added features.

• Hours: The store opens one hour early (7 a.m.) for its pro customers and stays open until 8 p.m. during the week to draw in locals. It’s open until 6 p.m. on Saturdays as well as the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Memorial Day. The store is closed on Sundays.

• Sales: Pro division manager Scott Sommers oversees a sales force exclusive to the pros, which comprises five full-time reps for referrals and walk-ins; two for the store’s remodeling contractor sales program; five for outside sales; and two kitchen designers.

• Mainstays: An in-house millwork facility; a 38,000-square-foot three-lane drive-through lumberyard with a semi-controlled climate and a heated floor; and a 30,000-square-foot shop-able warehouse (similar to IKEA stores’ concept, which lets customers pick up common items such as cabinets and flooring at the point of purchase) keep the Millers in the pro businesses while offering inroads for serious retail customers.

• Verticals: A big footprint lets the Millers delve into new or expand existing sales categories. They grew their John Deere franchise, added a pet and feed supply segment with a separate drive-through pick up area, and built out a 26,600-square-foot home décor section within the store. In all, they offer 75,000 SKUs.

• Construction: The steel- and brick structure is topped with a rubber roof and five-inch insulation, and its walls are sealed with four inches of spray-in foam. The floor can handle a load of 250 pounds per square inch. Unlike most big-boxes, the interior facing of its perimeter walls is finished with 5/8-inch drywall. Six entrances let customers park near the department they want to shop.