During the recession, it’s been business as usual at River Ridge Hardware and Rental on Spokane’s North Side. Sales took just a slight dip, and no full-time employees lost their jobs.
The secret? The store considers itself a neighbor to its customers. It hosts a Halloween party every year, and employees often deliver goods to home-bound customers.
This customer-first attitude was initiated by owner Brian Poirier, who bought the store in 1983. The attitude is carried out each day by Scott Banick, store manager, who plans to purchase the store from Poirier in the near future.
Recently, Banick, 37, sat down for a “Wise Words” interview with Spokesman-Review feature writer Rebecca Nappi. Banick connected the dots between customer service and surviving tough economic times. This is the complete transcript of the interview. An excerpt of it was published in The Spokesman-Review June 5, 2010.The store started out in the River Ridge Shopping Center in the early 1950s. It was run for years and years by a gentleman named Hal Norrie. In about 1983, Brian purchased it from Hal. He kept it over there for a few years. This building became available in 1989 in the winter, and they moved in.I was born in Bremerton and lived in Poulsbo nearby until I was 8. Then my family moved to the Grand Coulee area. I lived in the little town of Electric City, about two miles from Grand Coulee. My dad was the junior high principal. I lived there until I graduated, with the exception of my junior year in high school I took off for a year and lived in Turkey as a Rotary exchange student. I moved to Spokane right after graduation to go to college. When I was in Grand Coulee, my senior year in high school, I worked at the hardware store down there. I put one application in Spokane and happened to get the first job which happened to be in this store. I went to school and worked. I started off at Spokane Falls Community College. My intention was to go there a couple of years and then transfer to a four-year. I was going to go into international business. But I was young and I started a family at a too-young age. At that point, I figured I needed something to get me a career real fast. So I switched over to SCC and got into their fluid power program, because I’d heard rave reviews about job placement. I attended that and actually got hired about three months before I even graduated by a company in Seattle to be their West Coast sales and technical rep. So I left the store for about six months. I went over to Seattle. We left Dec. 26, 1996 with everything we owned in a moving van. It was snowing like crazy. It was a month after Ice Storm, but we had another small ice storm. I-90 was reduced to one lane. They were advising people not to travel. My wife at the time took our daughter; we just had the one at that time. She took the car. I had a big Ryder truck with everything we owned. It took 14 hours to get to Ellensburg. We got to Ellensburg and the pass was closed, and it was closed for five days. I was supposed to start this new job. I finally had to go to Yakima and over White Pass. It was awful. We were stuck in Harold’s Motel in Ellensburg for New Year’s, and I was just sick to my stomach with the stress of the new job, everything you own, and you’re in this squalid little motel. It was bad.I didn’t really like the traffic, the weather, the cost of living. So I came back here temporarily and was just going to work in the store until I found something else in my field again and one thing led to another. First it was assistant manager, and then I spearheaded out into the rental equipment in the store. And here I am, 19 years later. It was 1995 or 1996.In my family growing up, I was taught that if you want something, you need to work for it yourself. And you need to save up. I’ve worked my whole life from the time I was 13, except for the one year I went to Turkey. From a young age I’ve always been employed. There was a little grocery store in Electric City called H & H Grocery. Just a really small place. They had some candy, the beer coolers. Basically what a mini-mart is today but without the gas. I would go down there a couple of hours a day. I would stock their coolers and sweep their floors. I made $2.25 an hour. I learned in that first job is to always take on whatever job needs to done. Don’t hesitate, go forth with it.I love interaction with the people. When you work in a place for so long, in a neighborhood like this, you really get to know your customers. There are kids who used to come over from Finch (Elementary) when they were in second or third grade, and now they come in with their kids that are that same age and they say, “I remember when you used to sell me candy.” You get to really know your customers. Occasionally, I’ll drop down to Stadium Pizza to have some dinner. I’ll sit down and all of a sudden, there are these upside down cups because the customers are buying me beers to go with my dinner. It’s a really neat neighborhood. You always run into your customers. It’s a small-town feel in a big city.Our business is a little bit different, because ours is more of a repair store. Our sales kind of remain flat in (boom times) because we don’t have the big ticket items. People aren’t buying expensive granite countertops from us or loads of lumber to build a new house. Things were up a little more during boom times in some things like our plants and picture framing. We haven’t seen the big swing like a lot of different business owners that I know. I talk to some of them and they tell me the percentages they are down and wow. We didn’t feel the bust as acutely. We’re more affected by the weather than the economy. If someone’s toilet breaks, they need to fix it. Brian, for the most part, lets me make all the decisions. If it’s something that’s going to be super expensive, I consult with him, but the day-to-day operations fall to me.The Halloween party came to be, because in Grand Coulee they had a community event called the Moonlight Madness sale. All the different businesses would have sidewalk sales. They had drawings for prizes. At the hardware store I worked in at Grand Coulee, they had a pumpkin carving contest at the front. They came and they carved the pumpkins there. Whoever won, I can’t remember what the prize was, but it wasn’t anything big, like a $25 gift certificate. Thirty kids showed up to do it. One year I thought it would be kind of neat if we did something like that, because we have all the people coming in with the kids we see all the time. It’s a neighborhood store. So we did it. We threw in a couple of small games. The first year we did it, we did it in front of the store, from 6 to 7. I think we’re on our 11th annual. So we started off and I figured we’d have 20 or 25 people come. We had a lot more. You couldn’t even move in the store. It was a disaster. There were customers trying to shop. I’d bought about $20 of candy to hand out. We ran out of candy within like 10 minutes. We sell candy, so we were pulling all the candy off our shelves and giving to them. We ran out of all that, too. So the next year, we were better prepared. More candy. We moved it just right outside the front doors in the front parking lot area. By about the fifth year, we had to close out the back parking lot. We went from 50 people the first year to about 1,000 people now. We usually try to do it the Saturday before Halloween. Since we have the rental equipment here, we have two big jump castles. We put those out. I bought an electronic basketball shoot where the balls roll back down. We have putt-putt golf. We have bowling. We have bean bag tosses. Another one that’s neat that I kind of designed. I took some ABS pipe and took an air nozzle you use to blow stuff off, and I drilled through and put it in there. Then on the front of it they have these rubber boots with clamps to connect old galvanized pipes together. I made it the right size for a ping-pong ball. So you shove a ping pong ball in there and it gives it just enough resistance. So we run hoses from our big compressor that’s in the rental building. We have targets against the garage doors and then the kids get to shoot these ping pong balls with these compressed air guns. It’s the biggest line. We give out candy. This year, just for the candy, we had six of the 33-gallon garbage cans full. It’s nice to get the neighbors together. The adults like it, because they see people they don’t see all the time. In addition to the games and candy, we usually bring in about 1,200 cookies. One of our customers is a baker for Rosauers. We order them from him. He custom-makes cookies for us. We usually go through about 20 gallons of hot spiced cider. Another one of our customers does all the maintenance for the Garland Theater. So they bring us like four big huge garbage bags of popcorn. It usually runs from 6 p.m. to 8:15. Then I do the pumpkin judging at 8. We have four different age groups. They bring a pre-carved pumpkin. At the end of the night we get on the megaphone. We also have karaoke, too. They win stereo systems, DVD players. It’s a lot of work.We do it as a thank you to the neighborhood. They come in and shop with us. It’s our way of giving back. I mean, they could go somewhere else.The cost aspect isn’t that much. We don’t do a lot of advertising. I do very little print advertising, so the amount we spend on the party is what it would cost to have a circular printed and mailed to 20,000 households. I would much rather spend the money letting people have a good time.Yes, we do deliver birdseed to older people. There was one woman we did it for for 10 years. She lived on Litchfield Place. She had a really neat backyard. She would usually get a 50-pound bag of the birdseed and a 50-pound bag of the sunflower. She had garbage cans out in this little garden shade. We’d dump one in one and one in the other. You’d knock on the door and she’d give you a check and about two weeks later, she’d call and you’d get her more. There’s been several elderly ladies who feed the birds and can’t do the big bags and they’ll call every month or so and ask “Is there any way you can drop it off?” There’s another little lady on the park and every two weeks, she’d call and need something, and it’s not a big deal for me to run down there on my way to lunch. We’ve shoveled walks for people. Two years ago, I took our tractor home and on my way home, I saw seven or eight of our regular customers out there shoveling the big berms the snowplows made, and I scooped everyone’s berms out. There have been times ladies have called and needed ice melter and you go there and nobody has shoveled their walks, so we shovel their walks.Right now on the payroll, I have 24 people. They range in age from 18 to about 70. I have a few guys who are retired and this is kind of their second career. Did we have to lay anyone off in the recession the past two years? No. In the wintertime, we’re pretty slow. We didn’t have the snow this year, it was a little bit slower. Snow actually helps us, because you have the ice melter, the snow shovels, a variety of different things. I cut hours back, but employees were pretty understanding, but I didn’t lay anybody off, no. We have seasonal help and they know it’s seasonal going into it. But fulltime people – we have 18 – and they have full benefits and no one of them lost their jobs. During the wintertime, I could lay people off. It would definitely help the bottom line – big time. But then when spring comes around, you don’t have those people, because you laid them off and there’s a good chance they aren’t coming back, because they need the jobs. So now you have to retrain the people who don’t have the knowledge. You have new employees the customers aren’t familiar with, and they are going to think, “Boy, this guy is turning people around all the time.” So even though it can be a strain, it’s better to keep them on, because when spring and summer rolls around and you need them, it’s nice to have them, instead of going through a bunch of new trainings. The customers like familiar employees. They like name recognition, the (employee) who says, “Hey, Bob, how’s it going.” The longer you can keep employees, the more likely they are to know the names of the customers and address them by name.When I interview, the first thing I look for is attitude. You can give me a resume that shows you worked 25 years at a hardware store. That means nothing to me. I would rather hire some guy who works at the neighborhood pizza place that has a great attitude and is outgoing and friendly than a gruffy old guy who has the knowledge. I look for someone who is friendly, outgoing, energetic and someone I can count on. It’s all about attitude. You can train anybody, but you can’t train their personality. Can you tell (attitude) in an interview? Usually you can. One thing I always ask is “If there’s one thing I should know about you, what should it be?” For instance, I was hiring for cashiers this spring. The gal I asked that to said, “I can be kind of crabby.” I thought, “I kind of gathered that from our interview.” A lot of it is just sitting and talking about hobbies and seeing how they socialize. I ask all the basic questions, too. I was telling you about interviewing for the cashier this spring. I told you about the one. I had four other people scheduled. This is a down job market. I pay more than minimum wage. I’m not looking for any experience or anything. I had my first appointment at 10. Didn’t call. Didn’t show. Second interview at 10:45. Didn’t show. At 11, she called. She said, “I let time get away from me. Can I still come in?” I said, “No, sorry. I have a whole day of interviews and unfortunately, you missed yours, so better luck with your next interview somewhere.” And then the third lady comes in. She was on time. We were in here for two seconds and her cell phone was ringing. I’m just thinking, wow. I get hundreds of applications. I look for ones who look good, and a lot of people are unemployed and I was just kind of taken back. I interviewed about eight people for the position. The person who got it had a great attitude. Outgoing, very friendly. Not a lot of hesitation when I asked a question. On time for the interview, cell phone off. One piece of advice for young people applying for a job? Be on time. Turn your cell phone off. Take it seriously, even if it’s your first job. That job will lead to references later in life. You have to start somewhere.This winter I was at a management seminar for Do-It-Best stores from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. There were all types of stores. Some that are hardware stores like this. Some are just building centers. Some that do both. There’s some ranch and feed stores there. We had a roundabout forum at the end of the seminar and some of those guys, when they told me what was happening, it was wow. There was a building center over in Montana that had basically dropped to sales levels of what they were doing in 1999. They said they went from $6 million a year in sales to $1.5 million. When nobody is building houses, there is nothing much to sell. Do-It-Best is a buying co-op. It’s the primary co-op we buy through. I just this fall brought on another major hardware wholesaler called Orgill. They are based out of Memphis. They are both major players in the hardware wholesaling industry. Now I can pick and choose on who is cheaper. I’ve been able to lower a lot of our prices and customers have noticed. I’ve lowered prices, but not at the cost of losing the profits.In a recession like this, people are more budget-minded. So why would they go somewhere they will have poor service? Anywhere you go, you should demand good service. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a recession or not a recession. It might be harder in an upswing to hire the employees you need, whereas there are more employees in the job pool right now because there are so many people unemployed. I see the customer’s viewpoint. I’ve always been like that. I go places and I get fidgety and upset and I think, “If you don’t want the job, there are other people who do want the job.” Will customer service improve everywhere because of the recession? Some places you go still have the same bad service as they did and they probably always will. They offer a product and if you don’t like it, they don’t care. Has the recession made people buy local? No. Usually, you’d get a whiff of that, or customers will sometimes say I like to spend my dollars locally. Some still do, but it’s still about the same percentage as up times.Will we see more small businesses? Several customers who worked for larger companies that had been laid off for a year did under-the-table side work while they were getting their unemployment and then grew it into something bigger. They’ve gone out and got their general contractor’s licenses and started up their own businesses.What do I hope my daughters are learning about work from hanging out at the store? I hope they learn you always have to work hard, you always have to be at work on time. If something needs to be done, it gets done. You need a good work ethic for the rest of your life.We started our rental business in 1999. I would have thought rentals would surge during the recession, but it really didn’t. You had the construction end of things down a lot and that’s where a lot of the equipment goes. There just wasn’t those larger construction projects going on, it didn’t go up or down. It just stayed the same. Going into it, I thought we’d see 20 or 30 percent increases, but we didn’t. There wasn’t a lot of fluctuation to our business.What will happen next in our economy? Eventually, we’re going to slowly pull out of it. We will never be where we were. If we are where we were, it will be 15 years out. Where we were was hyper-inflated. I don’t think it was the true where we actually were. That’s why we’re in the mess we are now. We weren’t really there.We do have quite a few customers who walk here. We have a lot of employees who walk and bike now, too. My assistant manager lives about a mile and a half away and he walks every day. Three other employees bike. I see that in our customers, too. I see more people out for walks and when they’re out, they stop in the hardware store. More people riding their bikes home. It is noticeable. We’ve always been a part of the community. Our customers have made us a cornerstone. It’s a great neighborhood.