The parent company of Buehler’s Fresh Foods and several area Ace Hardware stores is thinking small when it comes to its growth strategy.
But not small in numbers — small in physical store size.
Officials at E&H Family Group, which operates 14 Buehler’s Fresh Foods and 12 Ace Hardware stores in eight counties, say their growth strategy includes opening more Ace stores and smaller neighborhood-type Buehler’s grocers.
A typical Ace is between 8,000 to 10,000 square feet, much smaller than national competitors such as Home Depot and Lowes. Similarly, the newest Buehler’s in Green is 22,000 square feet, compared to Buehler’s full-size grocery stores, which can be as large as 105,000 square feet.
“We more or less target convenience, those customers that want to run in and run out,” said E&H Family Group President Dan Buehler.
The philosophy applies to why they believe stores such as Ace can compete with the big-box chains.
“You walk in and there’s someone to help you right away and take you right to the item. That’s what a lot of people are looking for — just some help when they’re in a hurry.”
Similarly, the theory about the smaller grocery store formats rings true for Buehler’s Fresh Foods, he said.
While the Buehler’s large grocery stores are still important to the company’s base, the market for stores of a large size is saturated, said Dan Shanahan, newly promoted president of Buehler’s Fresh Foods. Buehler’s thinks it can also do well in the smaller format store, which can provide convenience and the same Buehler’s offerings — such as fresh produce — along with acceptable pricing power in a smaller footprint.
The company has been looking for new opportunities in both its grocery store and hardware divisions, however, the rapid growth has been in its Ace stores.
In the last two years, the family-owned company has doubled its number of Ace stores, including six new locations with its 13th slated to open this year in Avon Lake. On its grocery side, the newest Buehler’s is a converted former Portage Lakes IGA in Green and Shanahan said the division is close on a few other small-format acquisitions.
Named after the company’s founders, Ed and Helen Buehler, who founded Buehler’s in 1929 in New Philadelphia, the company is now run by third-generation family members with a few fourth-generation family now working, too.
In 2011, the family formed E&H Family Group as the umbrella holding company, under which Buehler’s Fresh Foods and its E&H Hardware Group operate.
A group of brothers, cousins and a relative by marriage have become collectively known as “The Buehler Boys.” In senior management, there are also two nonfamily members. They are Shanahan, who joined the company in 2011 to run the day-to-day operations of the grocery business, and Mark Klingbeil, the company’s chief financial officer.
Recently, Shanahan was promoted to president of Buehler’s Fresh Foods and Scott Buehler, who was vice president of real estate and new store development, was promoted to president of E&H Hardware Group. He will be responsible for Ace Hardware operations.
Both men have been in charge of day-to-day operations for their divisions for the last two years and the title changes align them with their responsibilities, said Bob Buehler, vice president of marketing and merchandising. Both report to Dan Buehler, president of E&H Family Group.
Buehler said while they all work closely, Shanahan and Klingbeil have the experience to run their divisions on their own.
In the grocery division, Shanahan said many of the large grocery stores will undergo a full remodeling.
The first will be the Wooster Milltown store on Burbank Road, where the investment will total about $5 million, Shanahan said. Then, over the next three years, the Medina River Styx, Wadsworth, Dover and New Philadelphia stores will get attention.
For the Ace division, about half the growth has been through acquisitions of other small hardware stores that were converted to the Ace format, Dan Buehler said. With most of the locations, E&H has found another existing stand-alone location to open the new Ace, he said.
While six of the Buehler’s grocery stores have an Ace Hardware attached, Dan Buehler said future locations will be free-standing. There is some product overlap between grocery and hardware, so having stand-alone locations can avoid a crossover.
Bringing high customer service the same as Buehler’s, Ace Hardware staff is also made available to “fill a niche big box stores can’t do quite as well,” he said. The chain carries brands such as Stihl that aren’t available at the national big box retailers, he said. Additionally, some Craftsman products are available at Ace.
Gina Veigel of Jackson Township was shopping recently at a joint Buehler’s and Ace in Jackson Township. Veigel said she likes the personal service at the store.
“Especially the drive-thru,” she said, referring to the store’s free curbside service. “That’s awesome, no matter the weather.”