Tom Sato is a long-time Wilton resident, but he’s only been in the hardware business for the last two years as the owner of Wilton Hardware.
“Two years, almost to the day, right before Hurricane Sandy hit,” he recounts about the store’s auspicious beginning. “We were still stocking the store, and people were knocking on the window. We said we should just stay late a couple extra nights to be able to open for them.”
Deciding to get into the hardware business was a move that allowed Sato to use his experience in marketing and brand management.
“Running a business isn’t terribly different. When I was a brand manager you were theoretically running a small business. Even if you weren’t worried about making the payroll and paying the electric bill, the principles of how to run it are all the same. That discipline is probably better than a lot of guys who start out knowing what there doing on the hardware end, but they have to work backwards on the business end.”
Not only did opening a hardware business fit Sato’s vocation, but it was perfect for his avocation as well–he’d always been one of those weekend warrior fix-it types.
“I would fix things around the house. When I was a little kid I would watch my dad fix things. But as I started the store, I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did,” he laughs. “I did fine, but that’s why I hire people who know more than I do. I know enough to make my way around the store and when to get someone else to answer a question.”
One of Sato’s smartest moves was in staffing the store with really knowledgable staffers. Prime among them is Andy Eckman, the store’s manager, who worked at the longstanding town fixture Keeler Hardware for years before it closed. Eckman’s family moved to Wilton when he was 4-years-old, and he has the hardware business in his genes–he learned the business from his dad, who ran stores in Stamford and Norwalk for decades. Eckman also worked in hardware during college, and eventually helped manage the Keeler store.
“I love to help people, and I love the challenge of some projects. I’ve always been good about thinking outside the box, and figuring out what can make something work,” Eckman says. “It’s fun. I know most of the people in town. And everyday is different, it’s always changing.”
Other employees have been handymen and Robin McCready was a general contractor. “There’s a lot of knowledge about fixing things,” Sato says, with a knowing smile.
Sato and his wife, Andrea, have lived in Wilton for 28 years. His children–son, Alex, and daughter, Lucia–both went through Wilton schools and he’s enjoyed being a member of the community. Now owning a business, he enjoys seeing the town from a different vantage point.
“I like it. I was the type of person, like a large portion of Wilton is–they move here because it’s going to be a great school system, but I was never here. Both Andrea and I worked, during the week we didn’t intermingle with a lot of people, we were here just on the weekends. While I knew people around town, once your kids are out of the school system that drops as well. Now that I’m here 7-days-a-week, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve tried to get as involved as I can.”
Sato has become very involved with the Wilton Chamber of Commerce, serving on the board for that organization. “Now that I have time, I’m very happy to do it, even though there are time constraints because I’m open 7-days a week.”
Sato is making the most of this job path, whether it’s because he now has unlimited access to the fix-it stuff he needs–“I still really like the tools section,”–or because he can make sure whoever comes into the store can find what they need.
“We’ve taken the philosophy that a hardware store isn’t just a hardware store anymore, where guys come in and talk for 20 minutes and get a handful of screws. At least 50 percent of our shoppers are women. And they’re not necessarily shopping for hardware items. One of the first things people asked us to have more of was housewares. You have to accommodate what people want because it makes it a better shopping experience when they come in. It’s also about trying to have enough variety so that the customer thinks about coming in,” Sato says.
He’s preaching to the choir, given that a recent GMW.com shopping list for the Wilton Hardware store was a broom, coffee K-cups and toilet paper. And it’s worth the browse up and down each aisle, as you never know what you’ll find.
“We always try to look for what might be new–this year someone told me the Kan Jam [Frisbee Game] was the new thing. We sourced it and bought it directly. We developed the Wilton hat because I thought it would be good,” he says.
What’s more, Sato has become a staunch supporter of locally-made products, including the Nantucket Spider insect repellent, and other items. He knows that people have other options, including big-box stores.
“I get people who say, ‘I can get this at Home Depot for a dollar cheaper.’ I can’t fight that. If they thought about logically, if you want to spend 20 minutes there, 20 minutes back, and 20-30 minutes in the store finding it, that’s fine. If you don’t have the value of your time, and if the gas works out for you, that’s fine. We look at fliers constantly–Home Depot, Target, Walmart, Rings End–we’re very competitive. Everyone is going to have something cheaper but we have some things that are cheaper too,” Sato says realistically.
What’s more, Sato’s staff brings an experience that he puts a lot of value in. “We look for experienced people who are going to know what they’re talking about, because that’s the real value of a local hardware store. But sometimes we have to judge whether someone is capable of doing a project themselves–plumbing is one thing, but electrical is little more dangerous. I also try to get high school kids to work here, and teach them responsibility. We give them a grounding, and ask them to be dependable.”
One of the loyal employees is Sato’s own daughter, Lucia. “She’s good with paint, she’s really good with customers, and she’s picked up things just listening to the guys–she can give pretty good directions on plumbing and getting people in the right direction.”
Overall, Sato has enjoyed the last two years. “The community really has been supportive, and we try to be supportive to the community.”
Wilton Hardware is located at 21 River Rd.
Pictured in photo above, L-R: Back row–Alexei Greenlee, Robin McCready, Jim Harman; Front row–Lucia Sato, Tom Sato, Andy Eckman