When Steve Eisel retired from a career at DuPont in 2018, he knew he wanted to start a small business. He laughs as he recalls writing in his notes as he planned this new venture, “not retail.” But as his thoughts developed—and when the Sears in Kennett Square went out of business and he grew tired of making the trip to Lowes—he found himself not only reconsidering retail but growing excited about the prospect of owning and operating an Ace Hardware store in the community he calls home.
Kennett Square Ace Hardware is a family-owned local business. “I went with Ace because it’s very highly rated and they provide great systems and support,” Eisel says. He also liked the business model. “It’s not a franchise,” he explains, “but a cooperative. Ace Corporation is owned by us, the individual business owners.” It’s the best of both worlds, as store owners have autonomy but also the invaluable support, expertise, and marketing and buying power of the larger organization.
“It’s pretty cool,” Eisel says as he settles into a comfortable seat in the store’s newly designed backyard barbecue and grilling area. There’s a decidedly neighborhood feel to the store, and to this little patio in particular, and Eisel smiles as he describes his desire for the store to be a great experience for the community. “I want everyone who walks in the door to know that we’re glad you’re here,” he says.
“I knew nothing about retail—and I wondered if I’d enjoy it,” he says. “But I do. I think of it as a game.” The store is a puzzle, and the pieces are starting to come together. “It’s been a good first year.” Just as in his favorite movie, Field of Dreams, “The people came,” he says.
The place to find everything you need
The store’s full and ever-expanding selection of grills and barbecue equipment has been recognized by Ace and is one of the Kennett Square store’s distinctives. Locals are serious about grilling, and Ace is the place locally to find quality grills and accessories from brands like Weber, Big Green Egg, Blackstone, and more—as well as friendly and expert advice. “I have the best grill in the store—the Timberline XL—on my deck at home,” Eisel says. “And I justify it to my wife because then I can tell people about it!”
The pieces of this 11,000-square-foot 3D puzzle continue to fit together as Eisel and his team seek to further improve the customer experience and add new and better products tailored to local demand. They’ve recently been expanding their line of landscape lighting, for example, and pizza ovens, Blackstone griddles, and fire pits, like the wildly popular and Lancaster-local smokeless Breeo, are all “hot” this year. Eisel and his staff have confidence in what they’re selling. “We have really great products,” he says. These include the store’s local exclusive on STIHL, Big Green Egg, and Benjamin Moore paints.
The store also carries a wide range of products. “One lesson I’ve learned about retail is that people like you to have it in stock,” Eisel says. “I’m so glad we have the breadth of products we have—over 25,000 at last count—with many more options than a box store.” In any given aisle, customers will find lots of choices in each product category. A regular and robust ordering system enables them to maintain regular stock levels on all of those items and accommodate special orders as well.
People like to come in, browse, and see the products, Eisel says. And with Ace Rewards, accumulated points for purchases translate into regular money-off coupons. The store also has a good online sales platform for those who prefer to shop virtually. People can pick up their orders in cabinets in the store, and Ace ships orders and offers free delivery for Ace Rewards customers within a seven-mile radius on purchases over $50.
There’s always something new, and the store’s product focus and layout reflect the changing seasons. “We stay on top of new products,” Eisel says. “Otherwise it would be a boring store.” Right now, the main display areas are chock full of garden and lawncare products—from mulch and soil to seeds, mowers, and pool supplies. With the rest of the store stocked with hardware and tools, painting and cleaning supplies, storage totes, pet care items, bird seed, kitchen and bathroom items, and more, it’s difficult to imagine something the store doesn’t carry. While Eisel’s puzzle continues to evolve and adapt, the store never feels like a maze and is staffed with friendly, helpful guides.
The place to find helpful people
Ace Hardware is known as “the helpful place,” and the Kennett Square Ace is no exception. “We try to greet everyone who comes in and ask how we can help,” Eisel says. Customers appreciate not having to go to a vast warehouse and wander on their own.
Eisel is delighted to have a great team of 16 employees, about half of them full-time. “We’re lucky in that,” he says, from “head cashier extraordinaire” Debbie to Andrew, Drake, Skyler, and Eric. Each of them has a slightly different area of expertise, but they all know exactly where to find things in the store and they share an eagerness to go above and beyond to help customers.
The “hub” at the center of the store serves as a central focal point for that customer service and is also where keys are cut and an infinite array of paint colors—from Benjamin Moore and many other manufacturers—are mixed.
The puzzle analogy holds true for the role that each of Eisel’s family member has in the business, too. “We all have a piece,” he says. In addition to Nick, Genna, and Mike, his children who are “silent partners,” his son Eric works full time as Assistant Manager, and his wife Kit, who works full time as a consultant, is responsible for the gift area. She enjoys stocking this part of the store with fun products from candles to humorous napkins, toys, cards, and decorative items.
A handyman on call
Eisel is also excited to help people once they leave the store. He’s putting the pieces in place for a new business that will complement and expand the reach of the store and fill a need he sees every day—for a handyman to do smaller jobs people feel they don’t have the time, equipment, or expertise to do themselves. Ace Handyman Services Brandywine Valley is a new franchise that is starting to take off nationally, and Eisel’s territory will extend from Exton in the north down to Greenville, Delaware when he launches this summer.
“When you don’t know who to call,” he says, “Ace Handyman will provide an experienced professional to complete your two-, four-, or eight-hour jobs from replacing a toilet to repairing drywall. And the work is guaranteed for a year.”
Ace Hardware Corporation acquired the Handyman Matters franchise in 2019, and the natural synergy between the two is part of its immediate success, Eisel says. “It helps the customer and provides the labor component for everything we sell in the store.” There’s a growing demand for this kind of service. “Baby Boomers are ageing,” he says, “and younger people are expert at other things.”
Ace is a community place
When he’s not at the store, Eisel enjoys spending time at the house he built in Lewes, Delaware. He grew up on a farm in rural Ohio, and his work with DuPont took him and his family to Singapore, but he’s been happy to call Kennett home for many years now. While he was involved in the community through coaching his kids’ soccer teams and other activities over the years, Eisel says he feels a lot more connected now than he did before opening the store. He’s met and helped lots of people and given back to various causes, and the store has cultivated community through various events as well.
“Steve’s generosity and community focus shine through in the store’s support of many different local nonprofits and projects, including their recent Flavor Fest and one-year anniversary celebration that benefitted CHOP,” says Kennett Collaborative Executive Director Daniel Embree. “We’re also grateful to Steve for his generous sponsorship of Kennett Collaborative events like Winterfest and the Memorial Day Parade and his involvement in our Collaborator program, where every purchase qualifies Collaborators to enter a monthly prize raffle. The kind of consistent giving he models demonstrates community care and a deep understanding of what it takes to maintain a vibrant community where everyone can thrive.”
The true test of a hardware store
There’s nothing quite like a good hardware store to find everything you need—to make your home more beautiful, organized, secure, and clean, and run more smoothly, and to help your garden flourish. It’s also a place to find the serendipitous treasures, things you never knew existed that make routine tasks simpler or simply more fun.
The test that sets the hardware store apart, though, is what I call the thingamajig challenge. Can you walk into the store, ask someone for the thingamajig that connects the thingy to that other thing, answer some helpfully clarifying questions posed by the employee, and walk out with what you need?
As my interview with Steve came to a close, I pulled various parts of a towel holder out of my bag. It had fallen off the wall the week before, and I showed Eisel the allen key I thought should work. “I can’t tighten the screw with this,” I said.
“Ah,” he said, fiddling with it and shaking his head as he led me to the right section in the right aisle. “It looks like this is too big. Here—” He pulled down a set of wrenches and tried them one by one, narrowing it down to the size I needed. “But you don’t want all of these,” he said, pointing to the $8 price tag for the set. He headed over to ask Fitz if the store sold them individually.
“Yes, we do,” Fitz said as he headed back to an aisle lined with tiny black drawers. “What size do you need?”
Eisel told him.
Fitz nodded. “Here,” he said moments later, as he fished a tiny allen key out of a compartment.
“I didn’t know we had those,” Eisel said, smiling with wonder. “How much is it?”
Seventy-five cents. And this is exactly what I love about a good hardware store. I got expert advice to help me find the tool I needed, and I left with exactly what I needed to do the job—for under a dollar.
Ace is, indeed, a very helpful place.
Ace Hardware is located at 350 Scarlett Road, Kennett Square. Find them online here and follow them on Facebookand Instagram.
Photos by Dylan Francis