In 27 years at Crossroads Ace Hardware, Jimmy Izzo has seen a lot.
New homeowners move in. Jimmy and his staff help with everything they need: paint, mailboxes, garden supplies. He watches their kids grow up. When they get ready to downsize, Crossroads is there too.
It’s got a Main Street address. But — next to Coffee An’ — it’s not exactly downtown. It is, however, the perfect place to observe local retail trends.
Some of what’s happened to Crossroads Hardware is unique to Westport. Much of it is part of a national movement.
No one knows how it all will play out. Not even Jimmy Izzo. And it’s hard to find a more astute observer of everything Westport than the 1983 Staples High School graduate. (Though his father AJ — himself a Staples grad — might give Jimmy a run for his money.)
“Today we’re an information society,” Jimmy says. “You can pull out your phone, order anything online, and have it delivered to your home within 24 hours.”
That’s true of nearly everything Crossroads sells. Whether it’s a mop — which you can also buy at Stop & Shop or CVS — or a gas grill, customers have exponentially more options than before.
They often buy the most convenient way. Many times, that’s online.
Then they’ll give Crossroads a call. They need help assembling that grill, or they’ve got questions about how to use it.
Jimmy answers them all. He’ll even tell customers to order online, and ship to Crossroads; he’ll put it together, then deliver it (for a price). Customer service is something a local store does far better than the web.
“If you come in for a can of paint, you leave with a bucket, brush and knowledge,” Jimmy adds. “We make sure you have everything you need, even if you haven’t thought of it.”
Crossroads Hardware is the closest thing Westport has to an old-fashioned general store — a place where folks not only shop, but sit around a pot-bellied stove, tell stories, argue, complain, and solve all the problems of the world.
(There’s no stove, but you get the idea.)
Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of place customers look for today.
“Younger people are searching for ‘experiences,'” Jimmy says. “They want to live where the action is. Look at the Avalon in Norwalk.”
Modern families with kids, meanwhile, run everywhere on weekends. Time once allotted to household chores and maintenance is often filled with travel sports.
“Parents are taking their kids everywhere, every weekend,” Jimmy explains. “We used to see them in here on Saturdays. Now they don’t even have time for that.”
Getting the word out about Crossroads — everything from services like tool sharpening, to products like shovels and ice melt before a snowstorm — has changed too.
The local papers are virtually non-existent. Jimmy relies much more on Facebook advertising and posts, and other social media.
The future — for stores like his, and all of downtown — is “unknown,” Jimmy says. He sees empty stores downtown, and less foot traffic. Part of the reason is that old-time relationships — between landlord, tenant and community — have frayed. Many Main Street properties are owned by out-of-town conglomerates.
“Downtown is looking for ‘wow!'” Jimmy says. “The Gap is not ‘wow!'”
He gives Bedford Square — David Waldman’s new retail/residential complex that replaced the former YMCA — an “11 out of 10.” But the rest of downtown needs a spark, Jimmy says.
“Main Street isn’t dead. It’s just trying to figure out what it is.”
One answer may lie in business-to-business networking — stores handing out coupons or flyers for other stores, say, or Crossroads combining with a lamp shop for an event that teaches how to wire a lamp.
“You have to give the customer a reason to make your place a destination,” he insists. “Customer loyalty changes instantly these days.”
The retail sweet spot, Jimmy says, is the customer between 30 and 55 years old, with kids in schools.
But they’re not wedded to Main Street — or even a once-essential destination like Crossroads Ace Hardware.
“With technology today, their options are limitless. No one has to shop in a store.”
But if you do buy that gas grill online, be sure to call Jimmy Izzo.
He’ll assemble it for you.
And then make sure you don’t light your entire yard on fire.