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Short, Sweet & Successful

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At ACO Hardware, a chain of more than 50 stores in southeastern Michigan, tradition has always been important. The company began 67 years ago as a family-run business, hewing closely to its communities, and recently embraced the notion that the same old same old is no longer good enough.

“You can’t grow and survive based on sticking to the status quo,” says Chris Ehrisman, ACO’s marketing director and a buyer. “Retail is competitive and big box stores are coming in all the time. It was just time. … We feel we have a story that differentiates itself: convenience, service and a great value.”

These days, ACO is telling that story through a careful balance of tradition — such as the company’s popular twice-yearly catalog — and innovation: a series of short videos designed specifically for social media buzz.

Quick entertainment
The videos didn’t just come out of the blue. Rather, they were the outgrowth of a multi-year process of rebranding the company, reconfiguring product assortment and remodeling stores to better appeal to younger buyers.

“That’s a customer that we want to try to bring into the store and we thought that this was a fresh, unique idea that could create some buzz and help us achieve that goal,” Ehrisman says. “We’re still in the process of building our digital strategy, which we’ve never had before. We’re going to engage with the [younger] generation through social media and through the web and some other digital avenues.”

The videos were the brainchild of CVMedia and clock in at 15 seconds or less.

“ACO said two things: ‘We want to improve the amount of clickthroughs on our YouTube videos and we want more people to sign up for our e-mail deals,’” CVMedia president and CEO Mike Mnich recalls. “The videos, they had had 20 or 30, maybe 50 hits. They wanted hundreds and thousands. We did a deep dive on YouTube, trying to understand what drives people to it. A young person isn’t going to click on a video tour of an ACO store for four-and-a-half minutes. People on social media want to be entertained and then back out of it.”

The company’s Michigan identity factors in several videos, including one in which an employee holds an oven mitt to mimic the state’s lower peninsula; another hand, wearing a work glove, comes across to indicate the upper peninsula. Another video highlights staff knowledge when a customer asks for a “thingamabob” and a “doo-hickey,” while others focus on customer service.

Playing up its Michigan roots is an important differentiator from chains that are moving into the region. And it’s become an important product category, leading ACO to carry items like Sanders Hot Fudge and Pure Michigan T-shirts that usually aren’t found in a hardware store.

“We started out as one store in Michigan and our Michigan customers have helped build us to where we are. We need to stay loyal to that,” Ehrisman says. “We also wouldn’t be a sound or smart retailer if we weren’t listening to what our customers wanted. The desire for local-made products is strong. It resonates in all of our buyers, and a lot of things that we’ve tried that may not necessarily have been conventional for us have been successful because they fill a need for the customer.”

Each video has the tagline “ACO-Oh.” “It was subliminal without saying, ‘We’re not Ace,” Mnich says. Each one also features ACO employees, vendors and family members, both as actors and behind the scenes.

“We want to add an idea contest,” Ehrisman says. “We want to give more creative [control] over to our people who live some of these situations every day in the store and see what they come up with.”

‘A fraction of the cost’
While the videos launched in late spring, Ehrisman says it’s too soon to expect a direct ROI (though the YouTube views are well into the hundreds for each one). “We really see this as more of a branding message,” he says. “We have implemented some digital projects with a little more measurable factors involved. But the first time I have a conversation with someone and say that I work at ACO and they respond, ‘ACO, oh,’ you’ll know we’ve gotten there.”

One area where ACO has gotten on trend is social media. Mnich cites the success of Vine, a mobile video-sharing service with a limit of six seconds per video, and Instagram, which added video sharing this summer.

“Between Instagram, Vine and others, these short videos are going to get some life,” Mnich believes. “You can attach them in an e-mail … It’s a good way for a company to be able to afford multiple messages.”

ACO was able to produce the entire first batch of videos — shot in one 10-hour day — for a fraction of the cost of a typical video. In addition to populating its Facebook page with the videos, ACO plays them on a loop in stores. “I don’t think I’ve been in a store since we started this where I haven’t seen someone stop by the screen and watch at least one and chuckle,” Ehrisman says.

The videos have also been popular among employees. “The power of building morale and getting someone out of their daily routine to participate in something fun is underrated sometimes,” Ehrisman says. “Their enthusiasm is viral and they’re showing it to their friends on Facebook and creating individual conversations around all the videos.”

Part of the overall strategy
The videos are the cap on a multi-year remaking of the store, which has included tweaking the product mix based on an individual store’s demographics and renovating or expanding other stores. The company also launched its first TV and radio ads.

“We want to keep going and we’re not afraid to try new things and be on that cutting edge — as long as it falls into our goals of getting new and more customers into the stores,” Ehrisman says. “That’s the question that we are going to ask around anything related to marketing.”
Even the popular weekly flyer has undergone a bit of a renovation.

“Our traditional circular has been a stalwart and it’s something that our customer continues to expect from us,” Ehrisman says. “Now, in the middle of our rebranding, we needed to add additional layers into the marketing approach. What we’ve done and what we’re working on for the customer is tremendous and we really look forward to continuing to push, to move forward, to get our message out to the customer and to see them come into our stores for the first time or for the first time in many years.”