Havertown hardware store battles giants

Above, cubbyholes are filled with lighting hardware. Below left, boxes anchoring hardware are left out for easy browsing.
Above, cubbyholes are filled with lighting hardware. Below left, boxes anchoring hardware are left out for easy browsing.
Posted: September 24, 2013

Among the paintbrushes and drill bits and grass seed, the aisles are full of local banter - about Notre Dame football, Haverford Township leaf collection, a customer's lawn project.

Stephen Allen, manager of Jacob Low Hardware, will be in the thick of it, giving advice and direction about what to buy while all 70 pounds of P.J., a tan-and-white mixed-breed dog, remains steadfast on his perch in the old wooden chair by the window.

The shop, founded in 1930 by Jacob Low, is a throwback to a time when hardware stores were as much a part of the neighborhood as barber and sandwich shops.

With a tiny parking lot fronting the two-story brick building in the Havertown section of the Delaware County township, no one would confuse Low's with Lowe's, but Lowe's and its ilk have become major threats to Low's and its ilk.

Of course, Low's offers some advantages over its big-box competitors with their phalanxes of inventories: Friendliness, personalized service, generous servings of neighborhood charm.

Customers can buy one nail or screw rather than a box of 100.

Those assets notwithstanding, however, Allen and Evelyn Low, daughter of the late founder and who owns the building, acknowledge the store has fallen on hard times. "Business could be better," Evelyn Low said.

She and Allen have witnessed a gradual drop in sales since Home Depot moved into the Havertown area about a decade ago - and then along came a Lowe's in May.

"With competition and the economy, it is really tough right now for a small business like ours," Allen said.

The home-improvement giants definitely have hurt neighborhood stores, according to a recent study by IBISWorld, and the effects were exacerbated by the real estate downturn of recent years. The health of the real estate market, particularly the new-housing industry, is tied directly to the health of the hardware business.

Mom-and-pop businesses feel the worst impacts if big-box competitors are within one to five miles of their stores, according to IBISWorld; Jacob Low is practically surrounded.

Home Depot is three miles from the store, and Lowe's is five miles away. In addition, although they are not on the scale of the big boxes, there's True Value a few blocks away, and an Ace Hardware within 21/2 miles.

"It's just tough to compete with them, pricewise and spacewise," Allen said. "They buy in larger quantities, and their pricing is better for that reason."

And all hardware businesses have been hammered by an overarching issue: Because of the economic downturn, hardware-store revenue nationally eclined at an annualized rate of 0.4 percent, to $21.9 billion, during the last five years, IBISWorld found.

"People aren't spending as much; they aren't doing a lot of repairs on their homes unless it is absolutely necessary," Allen said. "Hopefully, when the economy pulls up and new construction starts up, things will turn around."

One of the store's niches is specialized service, from making keys to more tedious tasks such as repairing window screens and cutting glass. In the spring, which Allen said is the busiest time of year, fresh blooms and tomato plants fill the lot. By fall, perennial, turf-type specialty grass seed draws in customers from as far as West Chester.

For their part, Allen and Low say they plan to stay with what has helped keep the business going for 80 years - maintaining relationships with customers and offering personalized, convenient service.

"It's tradition; it was my dad, it was what he lived for," Low said. "I am going to try as hard as I can and as long as I can to keep it going."


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