Two tenets of business have kept one of Durango’s oldest businesses, Kroegers Ace Hardware, vibrant since its founding 100 years ago: a willingness to adapt to change and a belief in putting the customer first.
Those two principles have driven the store since it was founded in August 1921, when Fred W. and John Kroeger bought the old Farmers Supply Co. and added hardware, paint, lawn and garden supplies and water systems – creating the store Durangoans recognize today.
“Everybody asks: Wow, how can a business survive for 100 years?” said Joel Krueger, who owns the store with his wife, Margie. “It’s because it’s not the same business today. You have to be able to change, to decide which direction you want to go. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to hold our ground and stay the same.’ The world will move on without you.”
Krueger, whose last name is confusingly similar to Kroeger, is not related to the founding brothers. He and his wife, Margie, bought the store in 2006 from Jim and Cindy Wendt, who had previously acquired the store in the mid-1990s from Fred V. Kroeger, the son of Fred W. Kroeger.
Krueger, who moved to Durango in 1991, got a job at Kroeger Hardware and worked briefly for Fred V. Kroeger while he was in the process of selling the business to the Wendts.
Through the years, the hardware store has added services like store pickup, free in-town delivery and assembly to match services increasingly common first among big chains and now with Amazon.
“We’re probably never going to be the first on something new, but we’re sure as heck not going to be more than second or third,” Krueger said. “When we see something new that’s right for us, we’re going to try it and find a way to make it work for us.”
In 2001, Kroegers Hardware affiliated with Ace Hardware, the largest dealer-owned hardware cooperative in the world. Becoming a member of a cooperative allowed Kroeger to keep its small-town independent roots while giving it access to economies of scale – allowing it to stay price-competitive with larger chains.
Membership in Ace gives Kroegers the benefits of national advertising, allows it to buy products at scale, and gives the store access to the co-op’s computer network and web services.
“We couldn’t do what we’re doing without a co-op behind us,” Krueger said. “Basically, what the co-op is, is strength in numbers.”
Ordering 50 hammers for a single store, for example, it would be impossible to compete with the Home Depots and Walmarts of the world, Krueger said. With Ace, Kroegers is now able to place an order for hammers with the other 4,500 other independent hardware stores that are Ace members.
Ace provides the software that allows Kroegers to track inventory, it provides the credit card processing for the store and Kroegers’ website is under the Ace umbrella.
“We’re using Ace’s ecommerce system, but it’s our inventory,” Krueger said.
While the cooperative model allows Kroegers to compete with Home Depot, it still unlikely to be the lowest-cost option.
Krueger said that is why his store has to be the top option for customer service.
“If we were a clothing store, I don’t think we could do this,” Krueger said. “Clothing is clothing. We can offer advice to get the right product. We can provide advice to help people replace a faucet for the first time.”
Theresa Boomer, who was shopping at Kroegers on Wednesday, says she likes the smaller size of Kroegers compared with chain stores and she appreciates the helpful staff and the downtown location.
Also, she said the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted lives and economies has illuminated the importance of shopping locally.
“This past crazy year has made me more aware of how vital it is to support local business, and that most certainly attracts me to check out Kroeger’s first,” she said. “I’m happy to spend an extra buck there to support a local business – on top of all the other positive reasons to shop there.”
Kroegers hasn’t finalized plans to celebrate its 100th anniversary. But it is looking to hold some type of event in the fall, hopefully at a time when the novel coronavirus is in full retreat and when larger public gatherings are allowed.
The amount of sales at Kroegers purchased by the agricultural community has decreased over the years, but an increasing amount of sales is being taken up by newcomers, especially people with second homes, vacation homes and those fleeing cities.
Krueger said: “It’s heightened our need to make sure our employees are trained enough to offer advice and to know when not to offer advice because someone wants to replace an electrical outlet, but they don’t know how to take the cover plate off. We tell them, ‘I don’t think you ought to do that. Find somebody to do it for you.’”
Kroegers employs 40 people, 30 of them full-time. The company starts employees at $15 an hour, offers health insurance, a 401(k) plan and two weeks a year paid vacation.
“For retail, you’re not going to get rich, but you should be able to make a good living, and we want our employees to find a home here,” Krueger said. “We like to think of ourselves as a family.”
Treating employees right is fundamental to keeping a staff that’s knowledgeable and helpful when dealing with home projects.
Krueger believes Durango’s growing number of second-home owners, newcomers fleeing cities and the popularity of do-it-yourself projects – something that’s aided by YouTube videos – will provide Kroegers with a growing number of customers it can continue to serve, perhaps not for another 100 years, but well into the future.