by Joshua Jerome
As the holiday shopping season ramps up, I found myself with not a lot of time and the most peculiar shopping list one day. On it, I needed a cherry de-pitter, a gallon of paint, tube insulation, a coffee machine and a box of shotgun shells. I thought to myself, “Boy, I wish I could just stop at one store.” And that’s when I headed down to Nelson’s Ace Hardware in downtown Barre. I knew I had a good chance of knocking off all of the items on my list in one stop. And, I was not disappointed.
While perusing through the aisles I ran into Bob Nelson, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know the history of his store, and Bob was eager to tell it. As it turns out, the Nelsons have a long history of retailing in central Vermont. It began with his great grandfather, Milo A. Nelson who sold tractors and milking equipment in Montpelier. Then his grandfather, Meriden H. Nelson who also sold milking equipment and Philco brand radios. And, Bob’s father and uncles started Nelson Brothers in 1952 and sold large and small appliances. The brothers grew the business to four stores and became a True Value dealer in 1969.
As Bob was graduating high school and trying to decide which college to go to, his father Carroll saw an opportunity to open up a hardware store. However, Carroll would only open the store if Bob would come on board. So, Bob decided not to go to college and would help his father open up the store, despite there already being three hardware stores in town. And in 1983, Nelson’s True Value Hardware opened. Within five years, two of the other hardware stores were out of business and Nelson’s was one of the top ten True Value stores in the country for selling microwaves. Bob explained to me that they would have a consultant come in to demonstrate how to cook with a microwave and in turn sold around 400 microwaves a year.
As the market has changed, so has Nelson’s, changing product lines to accommodate consumer demand and following sound business practices. In the mid-90s, operational control of the business was transitioned to Bob and it was soon after that another national cooperative, Ace Hardware, began vying for his support to join their cooperative. And in 2000, Bob made the change from True Value to Ace and it wasn’t because of the different products or price points Ace offered; it was their dedication to customer service. That’s been the hallmark of Nelson’s from day one.
And Bob explained to me that to stay competitive against the power of internet shopping made so ubiquitous and easy with the advances of smartphones, Nelson’s is continually educating their staff through Ace’s training program. And not only does this dedication create a culture of exceptional customer service, but it also encourages employee loyalty as can be seen with a couple employees, Annette Boisvert, who has worked at Nelson’s for 24 years and Kelly Newton for 15 years.
After doing this for over 30 years, I wondered what continued to keep Bob excited everyday and he said “every day, we have customers walk in with a problem nobody has had to deal with before.” The challenge of resolving that problem and “ensuring that both my employees and customers are successful, gets me excited.” So, as I walked through the store checking off items on my list, I thought how wonderful it is to be able to get everything I needed, in one location in downtown Barre.
The writer is executive director of The Barre Partnership.