EAST BROOKFIELD — When Scott Norrie walks around Howe Lumber’s bright design showroom or vast lumberyard, he nearly always spots a customer he knows.
Most often, Mr. Norrie, co-owner of the 53-year-old family lumber business, sees contractors who make regular pickups. Sometimes, it’s a local homeowner needing tools for an emergency project. And on occasion, he said, a customer will buy a new kitchen to replace the old one purchased from Howe decades earlier.
“It’s important for us to maintain those long-term relationships,” Mr. Norrie said during an interview at the West Main Street showroom.
Those loyal customers have helped keep Howe afloat all these years, sustaining it even in the shadow of the ubiquitous big-box stores. But for the store to thrive, Mr. Norrie and his wife, Kate Norrie – daughter of late co-founder Stephen Howe – have had to evolve.
Not only does the Howe Lumber of today look different from the business that Ms. Norrie’s father and grandfather Henry Howe ran, it also has slowly shifted its priorities.
Two years ago, Mr. and Ms. Norrie found they could no longer afford to operate two locations, so they decided to consolidate, closing the retail store at 555 East Main St. that Stephen Howe opened in the mid-1970s.
With the entire business now at the showroom, built in 2005, the Norries have placed more emphasis on design and hardware, including selling new products like pellet grills and fire pits.
“Product selection has just exploded,” Ms. Norrie said, sitting in an office filled with mementos from the lumber store’s long history, including an original sign from 1965. “The business has been forced to change because there’s so much more available. There are more items that customers want, whereas before it was much more cut and dried.”
Howe now offers some 40,000 different products, Mr. Norrie said, which has led to an increase in hardware sales (last year Howe recorded 60,000 transactions).
“It’s led to more retail sales – much more walk-ins,” he said. “And we really want the retail trade. We don’t want to be viewed as just a lumberyard for contractors. We really want to take on all customers and all projects.”
Over the years, Howe also expanded its showroom and hired more people with design experience. Along with its sales team, drivers and yard workers, Howe has brought in kitchen and millwork designers to work with customers and guide them through their projects. The lumber store employs 42 people, and many of them have worked at Howe for more than 10 years.
Mr. Norrie said the focus on design – including cabinets, kitchens and windows – also means Howe is better equipped to meet the demands of its savvier customer base. Given the popularity of shows on HGTV and prevalence of do-it-yourselfers, he said he can usually expect a customer to know more about home design than even his employees.
“They’ve researched the product extensively; they usually know more than the salesperson they’re talking to,” he said. “So we then become more about helping them on the way. It’s a bit of a hackneyed phrase, but we don’t like to sell people stuff: We like to help them buy what they need.”
Howe’s customer base is made up of about 65 percent contractors and 35 percent homeowners. While that split has remained consistent through the years, what has changed is women seem to be dominating the market more than ever before, taking over design decisions, according to Mr. Norrie.
“We gear a lot of our advertising toward women,” he said, “which is kind of counterintuitive for a lumberyard, you know, with two-by-fours and whatnot.”
But amid its shift to design and hardware, Howe has not forgotten about lumber. The Norries recognize that they’ll never have the capacity to stock as many hardware products as the big-box stores. But with lumber, they said, Howe has an edge.
“Lumber is like meat: There are definitely different cuts and qualities,” Mr. Norrie said. “We’ve been gravitating toward a higher grade (of lumber) for a while now. That tends to work out very well. Lumber seems to have become more commoditized now – it’s all about the lowest number, the cheapest this, the cheapest that.”
Howe has up to $800,000 worth of lumber at its yard, Mr. Norrie said, and it can continue to restock with the help of a vast network of other independent lumberyards throughout the country.
Most small, family-owned lumberyards like Howe belong to large buying groups, he explained, giving them the capital to purchase better grades of lumber. Howe is a member of the Lumbermens Merchandising Corp., a national group that includes 1,300 lumber dealers.
“We hit just over $4 billion in purchasing power as group this year,” Mr. Norrie said. “That really allows us to leverage our size. It’s not that we’re just working by ourselves.”
In competing against big-box stores, Mr. Norrie said, Howe’s greatest asset is its reputation. And the store’s record of service allows it to retain customers and attract new ones like Phil Brennan.
On a recent visit to the store, Mr. Brennan of West Brookfield was browsing for supplies to remodel his kitchen. Local contractors had steered him to Howe when Mr. Brennan called seeking advice.
“I’ve known contractors who went to the original lumberyard in East Brookfield,” he said. “This is where the contractor got all of his material. This is a go-to place around here.”
Howe’s employees can also appreciate its more personal brand of service.
Jorge DelGado has worked at the lumberyard for 16 years and now heads its service and repair department. Mr. DelGado never considered working for a large corporation such as Lowe’s or The Home Depot, he said, because he would not feel the same connection to the company and its leadership.
“To me, it’s nice to be able to shake the hand of the person who signs your check,” he said. “Scott and Kate are more than just your typical bosses. They really take care of us as family. I look at it as an extended family. And I’ve felt that way ever since I worked for Steve Howe, all the way down now to Kate. It’s always been a very warm place to come and work.”
To read the original article by Matt Tota, click here.