HARDWARE TRADE refers to hardware stores that sell a number of basic hardware lines such as tools, builders' hardware, paint, glass, housewares and household appliances, cutlery, and roofing materials, no one of which accounts for more than half the sales of the establishments. These products are sold to individual family consumers, farmers, large and small builders, industrial plants that use many such items as components in their own products, and other enterprises. Only a few of these products, such as some hand tools and building fixtures, have strong brand identification. They originate in a variety of manufacturing sources. They tend to be heavy, and dealers must maintain substantial inventories that turn over slowly. All these factors complicate the distribution system.
During the colonial and revolutionary periods, American settlers used hardware they had brought with them, along with goods imported from abroad and a small amount manufactured in this country. Businesses were not sharply differentiated. Producers often sold small quantities direct to consumers and to distributors. Large, prosperous iron merchants in New York and other major coastal importing centers sold to all types of customers, including country general stores.
During the early nineteenth century, firms began to take on more specialized roles. Manufacturers sold directly to industrial users and to wholesalers. The wholesalers in turn concentrated more on selling to retail stores, including general stores, and to some types of industrial users. Generally they expected the retailers to travel to the wholesale centers, often during specially designated market weeks, to purchase their supplies for the selling season. As population density increased and transportation facilities improved, suppliers began sending out traveling financial agents to help collect bills and, eventually, traveling salesmen to collect orders. In 1830, Scovill Manufacturing Company of Connecticut, a manufacturer of brass fittings and buttons, became one of the first hardware companies to employ traveling salesmen.
Competition increased sharply for local hardware stores and wholesalers with the growth of mail-order houses and large downtown department stores in the later decades of the century. Retailer attempts to organize boycotts and obtain punitive tax legislation on these new forms of distribution were unsuccessful in hindering their growth. During the 1920s and 1930s, the opening of urban retail department stores by mail-order companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward provided additional competition for the independent hardware stores. After World War II, yet more competition emerged in the form of discount department stores such as Kmart and Wal-Mart, then by the growth of home building supply stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's, which sold lumber as well as hardware items in warehouse-like "big box" stores.
In the 1920s and 1930s many of the independent hardware retailers formed cooperative chains in which independently owned stores engaged in joint wholesaling and purchasing activities, shared advertising campaigns, and other commercial activities. Prominent among these ventures were Cotter and Company and American Wholesale Supply, both of which eventually merged into the TrueStar organization. Retail census figures for 1997 show 15,748 establishments with sales of $13.6 billion.
Barger, Harrold. Distribution's Place in the American Economy Since 1869. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Cory, Jim. "Mom & Pop in the '90s." Hardware Age (October 1990): 58–67.
Marber, Allen. "Eighteenth Century Iron Merchants, A Modern Marketer." In Marketing in Three Eras. Edited by Terence Nevett and Stanley C. Hollander. East Lansing: Michigan State University Department of Marketing, 1987.