FORT PIERCE — When business at its downtown lumber yard slowed because of the downturn in construction, East Coast Lumber Co. teamed with Ace Hardware to expand its hardware section for consumers.
Downtown Fort Pierce hadn’t had a consumer-oriented hardware store for more than a decade, since Sewall Hardware closed its Fort Pierce store at Atlantic Avenue and Fifth Street.
Don Osteen Jr., vice president of East Coast Lumber’s Martin-St. Lucie Division, said, “We felt there was a market here in Fort Pierce for a hardware store, but we’re also still selling lumber and building materials.”
The change was out of necessity, Osteen said.
Before the recession, sales at East Coast Lumber’s Fort Pierce store were 90 percent contractor-oriented, Osteen said. Now it’s about 50-50 between contractors and consumer do-it-yourselfers.
“So far, it’s going well,” Osteen said. “Sales are up. We’re still in a deep recession and most wallets are tight, and frankly, I don’t blame people for that.”
Though there are no other hardware stores downtown, there is still competition in the area.
“We feel we can compete with the big boxes because we offer what we feel is better customer service,” Osteen said. “As soon as they walk in the store there are people to greet them and help them.”
Bringing in the Ace brand required East Coast Lumber to make some additional investments, he said. To accommodate the addition of $250,000 worth of hardware inventory, the company spent another $250,000 to upgrade the store’s computer system, something that hadn’t been done in almost 20 years. Five new employees were added, effectively doubling the store’s staff.
“We’re proud to say we’ve added jobs downtown, where few people are hiring,” Osteen said.
As a co-op, not a corporate entity, Ace is a good fit with the family-owned East Coast Lumber, he said, because most Ace stores are also family owned.
East Coast Lumber, founded in 1902 and one of the oldest existing businesses in Florida, also added an Ace Hardware to its store in Cocoa Beach in June.
Osteen said they may consider doing the same for East Coast Lumber stores in Vero Beach and Melbourne, but no Ace Hardware will go in the Stuart store because it is too small and too close to an Ace Hardware store owned by his brother Scott.
The next step for the lumber company will be to expand the Fort Pierce store’s lawn and garden section this fall, Osteen said.