SIX months after Winnipeg's TruServ Canada was purchased by Rona Inc., its 650 dealers are starting to see the benefits of being part of a multibillion-dollar buying group.
This weekend, about 1,000 of TruServ's dealers and vendors will converge on the Winnipeg Convention Centre for its biannual buying market.
Michelle Gerrard says she's really looking forward to attending the market, TruServ's first as a wholly owned subsidiary of Rona.
The owner of Neepawa True Value Hardware said, "We're just starting to see the impact. But we're really excited to see the new market programs."
Company officials are expecting a 20 per cent increase in attendance.
Even with a more intense sense of competition on the Canadian retail landscape, there is a heightened confidence among TruServ's network of small-town independents.
On Sunday, TruServ CEO Bill Morrison will unveil a new retail brand under the TruServ family that will give its dealers even greater flexibility. Company officials were keeping the name of the new flag under tight wraps. All Lora Deighton, a company spokeswoman, would say is that Morrison will reveal a new option for independent retailers.
"What it's going to do is give our independent retailers the freedom to choose what they want to do," she said. "They can do what's right in their community."
As it stands, 650 independent retailers across the country use TruServ's Winnipeg distribution operation to stock much of their stores' inventory. But only about 250 of them actually fly TruServ's retail banners -- True Value, V&S and Country Depot.
Gerrard's store in Neepawa is a good example of the kind of flexibility TruServ offers. She and her husband, Darryl, have owned the store for eight years.
It started as a hardware and general merchandise store, but changes in the local competitive landscape prompted them to make some changes.
"We had wanted to get into building materials and lumber for a few years and when a Giant Tiger store opened in Neepawa last year, we decided to make the move," she said.
Gerrard buys her building materials and lumber from another supplier through TruServ.
But she is hoping the Rona connection will give her access to Rona's broad line of products.
"That's what they do best," she said. "Rona is the biggest in their field and it has well-thought-out programs."
Neepawa already has one other lumber and building material store and it's not that far from the U.S. border and the lure of cheaper prices.
Southern Manitoba shoppers are already spending enough in North Dakota hardware stores that Menards is making weekly shipments to a Winnipeg depot for its Manitoba customers.
Jeff Abbott, a spokesman for Menards, based in Eau Claire, Wisc., said business continues to be brisk.
With the American big-box brand Lowe's now muscling into the market in Canada and Target on the way, the competition is getting even more furious.
Now that the Canadian dollar is worth more than the greenback, there's one more incentive for Canadian shoppers to get lured to the lower price points south of the border.
But John Archer, an analyst with J.C. Williams Group of Toronto, said Canadian retailers have been dealing with the challenges of cross-border shopping for more than 20 years.
He said there is a general sense there is room for two or three major players in each Canadian retail sector and it's always in flux.
"There is always an ebb and flow," Archer said. "But it certainly is competitive. We see sales results in the building supply that are tight. Sales are not as high as they were in the past."
He said the deck is always getting shuffled, noting that after Loblaws made a decision to go with very big stores, competitors like Sobey's came in to fill the void with smaller stores.
He said many small towns across the country are keen on maintaining the heritage of their communities.
"We do a lot of downtown revitalization across the country," he said. "We love to have a little hardware store on Main Street. There is a niche for that, too."