After last week’s announcement that the entire chain Orchard Supply Hardware stores would soon close its doors, social media outcry was louder than a gas mower running over a circular saw. But the anguished screeching mattered little to parent company Lowe’s, which was determined to “focus on (its) core home improvement business.” The closing will affect approximately 5,400 employees, and, according to USA Today, the company plans for all stores to be closed by the end of the company’s fiscal year.
Orchard Supply Hardware, known informally OSH, was founded in 1931 in San Jose, California, and was acquired by Lowe’s in 2013. The subdivision has 99 stores in California, Oregon, and Florida.
That previously mentioned core is Lowe’s stores – football-field sized warehouses with impossibly high ceilings and a sprawling layout. At these stores, it takes long to traverse the acreage and even longer to locate the one tiny screw you came there to buy, dashing hopes that the errand could be quick and the project completed with some Sunday left over. But the needle is always at the other end of the haystack, on aisle 67, halfway down.
On the other end of the retail spectrum are the small mom-and-pop hardware shops that no reasonable person expects to return. Unlike the warehouses, my neighborhood store had friendly customer service in abundance, but the thing I went there to buy only about 50 percent of the time. A trip that would begin full of determination to support my local independent small business would frequently end with a drive to OSH.
OSH was Goldilocks in a toolbelt’s dream: not too big, not too small, but just right, and its demise shows how the ends – cavernous physical warehouse stores and hands-off online retailers — continue to squeeze out the middle. OSH, which reported $600 million in sales last year, occupied a dwindling sweet spot: size medium. Not a yawning warehouse where, if not for the beep-beep-beep of warning, being run over by a passing forklift feels a very real possibility. Not a dusty neighborhood relic where shopping feels more an exercise in sympathy than in commerce. And of course, not online, where even the fastest shipping speed means a Sunday project will be put off until next weekend.
Lowe’s bought OSH only 5 years ago, and before killing it, undertook remodels of a number of stores, confounding those of us who knew by heart the previous locations of drill bits, float valves, and ni-cds, and knew by face the well-versed employees – each masters of their own small departments — who could help us find the rest. And when you didn’t know the name of that odd bit of specialty hardware you needed, you could head to the aisle called “whatchamacallits” and rifle through the bins, often with the help of an associate who relished a challenge.
The outcry over OSH’s closure doesn’t stem from sentimental notions about corner soda pop shops, or, more recently, childhood memories of trips Toys ’R’ Us. The loss is a practical one: a manageable, efficient retail experience. Toys ’R’ Us’ demise was attributed in large part to a poor in-store experience for customers, and now, with Lowe’s warehouse and website as the only options, hardware shoppers too will have fewer choices, and no way to fix what’s broken.