That low-pitched hum you hear inside the Orchard Supply Hardware on East Capitol Expressway is the tension between old-school and new-school retailing.
As part of its campaign to make its ever-increasing number of women shoppers more comfortable in this traditional bastion of masculine do-it-yourselfers, Orchard's recently remodeled store is a high-stakes balancing act. On one hand, Orchard's reaching back to its San Jose roots (traditional signage, canning supplies, even vintage sodas near checkout) to court its female clientele, which constitutes 42 percent of store traffic. At the same time, it's leaning into the digital age (high-tech music and intercom systems, QR code readers that link shoppers to online DIY videos, fancy computerized paint mixers), harnessing tech tools to give women -- and men -- a more layered retail experience.
"We're figuring out that fine line between the in-store experience and the online world," says Erica Ecker, Orchard's visual marketing and creative services manager. A former Disney executive, Ecker now leads the effort to redo most of the 89 stores throughout California, trying to make women more comfortable than they are in the big-box hardware stores while also keeping things cutting-edge. "We're being very thoughtful about what we do online and how we link that with the brick-and-mortar experience. We want shoppers to think first of Orchard as their neighborhood hardware store, but then use online to bring people in."
Those efforts appear to be paying off. San Jose resident Nellie Crick, who said she's been coming to this store "for years and years," is thrilled with the makeover.
"It's a like an entirely different store now," said Crick, as she shopped for plants in the store's nursery section, dubbed Orchard Market. "The new design is clean and neat, and the wider aisles make it more comfortable to walk through. I love it."
On a recent morning, Ecker gives us a tour of the San Jose store, a 35,000-square-foot incubator where the two worlds are carefully and often subtly woven together. It starts with a greeter named Helga Pelayo. The new stores have pushed back display shelves eight feet to create a "landing zone," and on this morning Pelayo stands in the middle of it, wearing an old-fashioned customer-friendly smile and a tiny headphone that links her to every other associate on duty.
"I love the new radio system," Pelayo says. "Before, it was hard to find other associates to send customers to, but now that we're all connected I can quickly track people down in every department."
There's another under-the-radar tech trick in play here. Ecker says that thanks to the radio system, the overhead public-address system is gone. And the music playing in its place is not just some random soundtrack. It's a carefully crafted mix of 600 to 700 songs put together by a startup company that uses sophisticated algorithms to find and rotate tunes that appeal to Orchard's four customer segments: Gail the Gardener, Pete the Project Guy, Dan the Handyman and Small Project Pam.
That smooth blend of hokey and high tech unfolds as you move along the recently lowered shelving units, or gondolas, and wider aisles. Wall stencils and sepia-toned signs subconsciously connect shoppers to the Santa Clara County of yesteryear, that orchard-bound Valley of Heart's Delight where OSH got its start as a farmers co-op in 1931. Moving through the space, the store's new color coding (red for hardware, green for nursery) soothes the eye, while products are presented in user-friendly ways.
At the same time, strategic Silicon Valley-style retailing tools are tucked into the remodeled store at every turn. Point your smartphone at one of the QR codes pasted onto the shelves and pull up a professional YouTube video that shows you how to apply drywall or install weather stripping. And the same store that will sell you ladybugs and worms also carries the tech-enhanced tools like laser levels and tapeless measuring tapes that women, in particular, seem to love.
"Thanks to new lithium-ion battery technology, this new line of Craftsman tools are much lighter and easier for women to use," salesman Carl Schiefer says. "That new technology gives these things tons of torque, yet they're light enough for women to use. I sold 200 drills this past weekend and at least half the buyers were women. I try and get one in their hands and once they pull the trigger, they say 'Gee, I can do that.'"
There's more in store. In the next year, Orchard plans to add QR codes to plants in the nursery, so you can toggle back and forth between two worlds -- the one you're standing in and the one in your hand, where an online tutorial will tell you everything you need to know about the care and feeding of that pittosporum at your feet, just dying to go home with you.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689; follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.
Founded as a purchasing cooperative in San Jose in 1931
Headquarters: San Jose
President and CEO: Mark R. Baker
Number of stores: 89, all in California
Size: Stores average 44,000 square feet of enclosed retail space and 8,000 square feet of exterior nursery and garden space
Number of employees: 5,500 to 6,000, depending on the season
Mix of male/female shoppers: 58/42 percent
Annual sales: $660 million
Source: Orchard Supply Hardware