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Good old hardware stores experiment online but surviving big franchise onslaught anyway

Non-competitive prices and the headache of managing an online business are turning traditional hardware stores off the internet but they're keeping pace with big chains nonetheless.

Siva Selan
2 minute read
Traditional brick-and-mortar hardware shops face stiff competition from big franchises but are holding their own nonetheless.
Traditional brick-and-mortar hardware shops face stiff competition from big franchises but are holding their own nonetheless.

Small-time hardware stores are a familiar sight to many, their entrances framed with stacks of paint tins and rolls of wire screen, ladders and gardening tools in neat piles by the side.

But while for generations they have remained unchanged in appearance, the emergence of hardware chain stores is forcing them out of their traditional comfort zone – and into the vast world of the internet.

Over the years, big names have appeared in the industry, backed by the allure of slick marketing, reward programmes and “can’t be beat” prices. Homegrown brands like Mr DIY lead the way with international lines like Ace Hardware right alongside.

This has the makings of tough competition for these traditional hardware stores, which for decades have served the needs of customers in need of hammer and nails, a replacement pipe for the kitchen sink, or a new broom.

Big chains with multiple resources also have an advantage over small businesses trying to make the shift online.

Ong Kok Weng has been in the business for nearly a decade now. He has tried to make the move before but was stymied by the task of managing an online shopping platform.

The problem was not processing orders and sending them out for delivery, he told MalaysiaNow. Rather, it was the technical skills and computer literacy needed to maintain an online presence.

For Lee Han Shyang, whose shop is located in Shah Alam, it’s hard to top the competitive prices offered online.

“I do sell my products online,” he said, “but the response from customers is not as good.

“Customers usually go to e-commerce platforms to find the best deal for the lowest price. But low-priced products usually lack quality compared to high-quality products, thus the difference in price.”

But while this may cause him to lose out online, it makes all the difference to his regular in-store customers, many of whom are from the construction and industrial sectors and cannot afford to skimp on quality.

Lee Han Shyang attends to a customer at his shop in Shah Alam. For him, the higher prices are worth it as they mean better quality.

“We supply goods to factories and clients from construction sites as well as hardware products for home use,” Lee told MalaysiaNow.

“So we need to ensure that our products are of good quality.”

The manager of another store in Shah Alam who preferred not to be named said traditional shops continue to thrive as many customers just want to make a quick trip without having to go through an entire mall.

For now, brick-and-mortar stores may be able to survive offline although digitalisation has claimed more and more followers, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic which pushed many businesses onto online platforms as infections keep face-to-face contact at a minimum.

And, as veteran shop owner Ong told MalaysiaNow, there are also other, perhaps more immediate issues to tackle, first in line being the economic slump.

But, as hardware shopkeepers know only too well, not everything is an easy fix.