Fifty years after company founder Norton Rockler began selling woodworking supplies through a Minnesota-based catalog, Rockler Woodworking and Hardware this year has opened its thirty-first, thirty-second, thirty-third and thirty-fourth retail stores.
Now offering its namesake woodworking and hardware supplies through retail and Internet avenues, as well as the continuing catalog, the company recently took advantage of an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Said Rockler President Dave LaPorte: “Because of our company size, the number of opportunities we see to expand often exceeds our ability to open stores. The recent bankruptcy of the Woodworker’s Warehouse chain, however, opened up three of our four new locations — the fourth was already under consideration — and played into Rockler’s long-standing desire to increase its presence on the heavily populated East Coast.”
The four new stores are in Danvers, Massachusetts; Salem, New Hampshire; South Portland, Maine; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And while the company does have a significant Internet presence for those newfangled shoppers, 80 percent of woodworking industry purchases — as in most industries — are still made at the retail level. “A certain number of people like to touch and feel the product,” Dave notes, “and a certain number need the product today.” As opposed to changing the industry, Rockler positions itself to take advantage of this brick and mortar tendency.
Throughout the retail division, Dave said, the company is also trying to better satisfy woodworking customers. This initiative, especially evident in the newer stores, translates into changes in signage and visual aspects to educate customers about a product’s use and its application to their need, as well as larger store sizes with facilities and fixtures that “open up” to allow space for regular classes and demos.
“Classes in woodworking reappearing in public schools in the near future, I would say, is unlikely,” Dave said. “On the other hand, we are experiencing a growth in the appetite of people going out on their own and finding resources to teach them woodworking — and Rockler is successfully attending to that trend.”
CEO Ann Rockler Jackon’s commitment to this vision of “filling the void in educational opportunities,” Dave said, means that the company looks at opportunities to develop woodworking training on a weekly basis — for those at skill levels from beginner, to intermediate, to advanced. “We also supplement by adding classes and by training associates in our stores so they can educate the customer.” In addition, Dave said, “We try to get more involved with guilds — in some locations, the Rockler stores are where the guilds meet — creating an environment where woodworkers can share knowledge with other woodworkers.”
Some of those classes are geared specifically to women, and training of store associates focuses on recognizing the growing trend of women in woodworking. “Most of us have watched what happened in the do-it-yourself industry with women’s growing involvement,” Dave noted, “and the research by percentage growth shows that women participating in woodworking is the fastest-growing segment of the industry.
“For many years, the common belief was that this was a male-dominated field, and when you looked at persons in stores — female woodworkers were often being neglected at some levels,” he said. “Now we have more attention focused on the fact that they, too, are woodworkers, and they’re just as skilled, and just as interested in their passion.” Rockler’s booths at woodworking shows, for example, include a section where individuals encourage women woodworkers and invite them to visit the local stores.
Of course, Dave said, Rockler does not want to ignore its traditional male
customer. “Rockler believes we can service all aspects of the market without
neglecting others,” he said. “It’s not a shift in commitment, but a broadening of our focus.”
As a company with such a long history, Rockler has a unique perspective on the types of woodworking those interested persons prefer. There can sometimes be “trendy” projects — for, example, humidors were very popular for a while — but those tend to be short-lived, Dave said. “The core woodworker still tends to go into furniture building and stay there, so things like drawer slides remain an important part of our business.”
The company has continued to add more routers and router accessories to its merchandise mix as those tools become more popular, but what has really been a significant change is the demand for greater variety in areas like woods and hardware finishes, Dave said. “The traditional use of just oak and maple has expanded greatly. We see more use of creativity in projects, and our merchandise has expanded to accommodate that.” It used to be, he added, that brass finishes dominated the hardware line. “Now, customer demand requires that a much wider variety of finishes be available, even though the functionality hasn’t changed.”
Among Rockler’s new product offerings in the area of wood is Lyptus®, a fast-growing, sustainably harvested wood with good working properties. That, however, is just one example of the company’s commitment to the environment, Dave said. “Rockler for years has been looking at sustainability and has included this in all parts of our business. We have had environmentally friendly products for many years, and even the packages we ship to our customers [who place catalog or Internet orders] use biodegradable peanuts. Philosophically, we think it needs to be part of our consideration as we run our business, not just in product selection, but in some of the other things we do.”
He admitted, however, that the company may not have promoted its environmentalism as much as possible. “Plans are in the works to increase focus on this area. The first step is to educate customers on the environmentally friendly products we already offer, whether it’s in stains, or in woods,” he said. “Beyond that, we’ll continue to introduce products that are friendly to the environment.”
In this, as in other areas of woodworking, “Rockler is committed to listening to what our customers are telling us,” he said. “From a merchandise perspective, from a knowledge perspective, we listen to what their needs are in order to continue to build our business and help them build their own passion.”
The opportunity for opening three of the four new stores may have come from another retailer’s bankruptcy, but Rockler does not feel that is reflective of the state of the industry: “For the foreseeable future, the woodworking industry is very solid and sound,” Dave said. “We’re seeing some growth as the Baby Boomers are aging — they have disposable income and a desire to do things with their hands.”
But beyond that, “the people that typically become intermediate to advanced woodworkers do so because it’s a passion. It’s not something they come into and leave in a matter of years,” he said. “Once they’re in it, they’re in it for a lifetime. It’s a vibrant industry for that reason – and we expect it to stay so for many years to come.”