PJ's Ace endures 'ugliest' week in major renovation

?Ace's 'Vision 21' helps prompt $200K revamp, expansion

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By DREW CARTER

Clyde Williams has his cash register on wheels.

Things have been up in the air for a little more than a month since he began a $200,000 renovation of PJ's Ace Hardware, 7 Chicago Ave., in late June.

Now, midway through what he called his "ugliest" week, he's got paint cans for sale along the east wall, stacks of hardware here and there, and men working on the floor, installing a new facade, and new lights are on the way.

The work has meant closing on Sundays, some weekdays, and half days here and there.

"I'm just doing what I can to not cut off completely the flow to the store," said Williams, who has operated Ace for nine years.

It's hurt him financially?#34;in July alone he estimates he lost more than $20,000 in sales?#34;"but what else can you do?" Williams said.

To save some money, Williams has tried to do as much of the renovation work himself, tallying 80-hour weeks, including 8-hour Sundays.

"I have really punished my wife," he said. "But she's been understanding."

Williams' efforts and desire to make some changes coincided with Oak Brook-based Ace Hardware Corp.'s "Vision 21" program, a push to get members to comply with standards concerning how stores should look, what merchandise should be offered, and the computerization needed to place special orders and offer the Helpful Hardware Club, a card-based discount program.

Launched in 2000, Vision 21 was built on practices of some of the most successful stores in the Ace cooperative, said division advertising manager Margaret Burke. A cooperative is a business arrangement that helps individual stores save on purchasing and advertising costs and differs from a franchise or a chain.

Last year, Ace made $3.29 billion at its more than 4,800 worldwide locations. The company was founded in Chicago in 1924.

Also in 2004, the company returned $14.1 million in incentives to nearly 1,900 stores that had met the Vision 21 standards.

Williams said Ace would like all of its stores to have at least 10,000 square feet, but at stores like his, that's not possible. As part of the renovation, he opened the back of the store, once used for storage, and put all merchandise on the shelves. That expanded his store by about 1,000 square feet to a total area topping 4,000 square feet.

He's hoping more products will mean more sales, and that new design standards with help, too. Williams is installing new flooring with the look of hardwood, but impervious to water, salt and snow. New low-energy lights will brighten the store.

Store hours will expand, with later hours available to working folks who can't make it home by 6 p.m., his old closing time.

"I know I've underserved the community," Williams said. "Hopefully with these renovations I will be able to meet the needs of the community." PJ's hours after the renovation will be 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"We're really excited about what Clyde is doing," Burke said. "It's a huge undertaking." She added that different stores need to make different changes to meet Vision 21 standards. Most don't require renovations.

A major strength of Williams' store is illustrated on a Monday morning standing outside his shop. Most passersby pat him on the shoulder, or look knowingly at him to nod hello. A mainstay in the community, Williams said he has personalized 90 percent of his customers. That's not the easiest way to run a business, but it keeps customers loyal, he said.

He hopes that loyalty will mean a faster return to normal and above normal sales once the renovation is complete.

"Somebody got to help me pay for this thing," he said.

He is getting some help: the Village of Oak Park awarded him a retail rehab grant, and he's getting help on the facade from the Oak Park Development Corporation.

Inside the store, a customer is buying a flexible hasp, so Williams enters the store to ring him up. Because the hasp will be exposed, he knows the customer needs 3/16-inch carriage bolts, which once they're on will stay put.

The older housing stock in the neighborhood requires different hardware solutions that big box stores can't always make, he said. Personal and knowledgeable service is where stores like his shine.

"What you are is what they are not," Williams said. "They don't personalize, they merchandise."

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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