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Case Study: Plan-It Hardware
The first comprehensive green product merchandising and distribution program in the industry provides insight into what works and where the challenges are for mature businesses in a mature industry.

11 minute video, starring Ed Begley, Kevin Danaher, and a cast of thousands. See entire video here:

Green Guide to Home Improvement, chock full of excellent "drill-down" information on green it yourself project advice.

Plan-It Hardware ad.

At Sonoma County green event, supporting local dealer.

Origins and launch

The impetus for Plan-It Hardware originated with the ownership of California Hardware, a company whose roots went back to the Gold Rush. It once dominated the industry in California, but globalization and the appearance of the Big Box retail chains soon reduced it into a secondary or tertiary supplier for most of its customers. Though by numbers the bulk of the customers were small, independently owned hardware stores, the bulk of the revenue came from a small chain of home centers in Southern California who were rising with the housing boom.

Ownership saw the development of a green business initiative as an opportunity to rebuild the customer base and generate much needed revenue. It was 2005 and before Inconvenient Truth had even been released. This was literally uncharted territory.

After analysis of various alternatives, we devised a plan to create a new division, called Plan-It Hardware, which would focus on distribution of green products. At the time, market research indicated that large numbers of people desired greener choices, but there two significant obstacles - they didn't know how to recognize a green product, and they weren't readily available. As a distributor, we thought we could solve both obstacles.

The core of the program consisted of:

  1. Green Product Catalog - we developed comprehensive criteria that included green building guidelines, toxic chemicals, organic gardening and other "green living" issues, and created a screening process that included comparing products in the same category to each other. This enabled us to identify the greenest-in-class products, which we then added to our catalog.

  2. Merchandising - from the growing catalog, we created assortments and end-caps for a variety of categories, projects and promotional occasions, such as Earth Day and the Burning Man festival.

  3. Comprehensive Co-Branded Signage - we created a professional brand identity and co-branded store signage that included shelf talkers, shelf headers, posters, window stickers, as well as informational guides to help customers identify how to undertake green projects.

  4. Education and Training - getting store managers and floor staff up to speed would be critical, so we assembled several training workshops on green building issues, toxic chemicals, and specific product knowledge. We also helped organize and support store "green teams."

  5. Community Outreach - the final piece of the program was all about creating a "buzz" in each community where a dealer had signed up for the program. This included news stories and advertising in the local press, exhibiting at local Earth Day and community events, and initiating relationships with local non-profits, green building programs and municipal environmental departments. We also created a website that listed each dealer and their location.

The program was officially launched with two pilot stores already enrolled, at the 2006 San Francisco Green Festival held at a venue, ironically, just around the corner from the old Baker & Hamilton building.

Initial Growth

After launch, the program grew to eventually include over 1500 products and nearly 70 dealers enrolled in the program, supported by advertising, press coverage, collaborations and community events. Many were new customers entirely, but most were old customers who were growing more interested in "going green" because their customers were asking for greener choices, they sensed an important business opportunity, or they simply wanted to leave a positive legacy for their children who would eventually run the family business. Many of these new customers are an entirely new breed of dealer, like Livingreen in Culver City and EcoHome Improvement in Berkeley, dedicated to providing products for greener lifestyles, interior design and remodeling.

The advertising and PR strategy was focused on building awareness at the local community level and designed to promote the dealers. Several, such as Friedmans Home Improvement and Virgil's Home Center garnered solid coverage in local, regional and trade publications. This also led to important community based collaborations for each, such as with GoLocal Sonoma and the City of Glendale, respectively.

In fact, we worked to develop such collaborations throughout the system and could count Build It Green, the City of San Francisco, and Global Exchange among other notable allies. We also collaborated with a host of smaller groups to promote local stores and to generate community awareness around important topics. Our Toxic Awareness Campaign, educating householders about dangerous common toxics found in household cleaners, for example, was a model for such activity with a clear "win-win" for all involved.

Throughout the California, Plan-It Hardware was visible supporting local participating dealers at Earth Day and other green or community events. We also supported dealers in producing in-store events promoting their green solutions, often collaborating with both manufacturers and aligned non-profit groups in the community.

Lessons Learned

For all its successes, Plan-It Hardware could not pull its parent, California Hardware, back from the brink. After suffering through through the initial onslaught of Big Box retail in last decades of the 20th century, the housing bubble of recent years delivered the final blow. But there are many lessons to be learned from the experience.

  1. Demand for green products is growing among dealers and their customers. This is truer today as more people seek to reduce their energy bills, enlarge their kitchen gardens, and live more simply.

  2. Greener choices marked as such on the shelf, along with other signage and informational material proved to be essential merchandising tools.

  3. Proactive dealers did best. Those that educated staff and practiced tried and true merchandising tactics sold more goods and enjoyed better customer loyalty.

  4. Dealers located near Whole Foods or other organic markets, and those with active green building programs in their communities were able to capitalize on natural synergies.

  5. The myth that green product don't measure up is, in fact, a myth. There are those that sell and those that don't, some work well and some don't. The same is true for conventional products - there's a long list of cheaply made goods from foreign manufacturers that are worthless, and plenty of toxic chemical products that don't clean or remove rust or paint.

  6. While top-down decisions are often required to get new initiatives off the ground, including sales and other key personnel early in the process to get buy-in, support and benefit of on-the-ground experience is essential. We didn't do that at first at it slowed internal adoption and support for the program.

  7. Community groups and departments embraced, cheered and promoted the Green it Yourself dealers. The efforts to stock green building products and materials, as well as reduce toxic chemicals were clearly good for the health and welfare of the entire community, turning some dealers into local heroes.

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