Two years ago, Laura Fleeger-Koenig hoped that closing one of two struggling hardware stores would be enough to help her family's hardware business survive the recession.
But it wasn't enough, and by the end of this month, Fleeger's Pro Hardware, a home improvement fixture in Toledo, will go quietly out of business.
"Last year was our 65th anniversary. It's been a real blessing and honor to serve the community," Ms. Fleeger-Koenig said. "In past recessions we've done better because people have been cutting back but fixed up their homes themselves. But that didn't happen this time with the foreclosure issue."
Fleeger's, which at one time had three Toledo area stores, was down to its final store at 2149 S. Byrne Rd. It closed a store on W. Central Ave. in 1998, and closed its original store at 7828 W. Bancroft St. in October, 2009, when the Fleeger family determined that changing customer shopping patterns in the store's vicinity had left it too isolated.
Ms. Fleeger-Koenig said she had believed the Byrne Road store would go on indefinitely. But several factors forced its demise, and in early January she reluctantly made plans to shut it down before bankruptcy could become an issue.
The struggling area economy hurt sales, but the local housing crisis probably hurt more, she said.
"If your house is in foreclosure or is underwater, you're not going to even buy a gallon of paint to fix it up," Ms. Fleeger-Koenig said. "And we had noticed that customer buying habits have changed. Customers are going to the big-box stores for big-ticket items and then to us for small things.
"We were selling a lot of keys and bolts, but that per-ticket sale had been dropping," she said.
Ms. Fleeger-Koenig said she had negotiations with an individual interested in buying Fleeger's, and late last year it appeared a deal might happen to allow the store's 11 employees to remain employed. But the deal fell apart.
Fleeger's, which had an unwritten rule that employees could not point customers toward an aisle but rather had to assist with their project, will sell its store equipment and fixtures on the Internet and has begun a final sale to liquidate its merchandise.
Karen Oswald, co-owner of Lambertville Hardware in Michigan, said the news of Fleeger's demise was not a shock because many small hardware stores are struggling because of the economy, the sluggish area housing market, and the mild winter, which has hurt sales of winter-related products.
"I talked with Laura a lot, so, no, I wasn't surprised, but I'm very disappointed that we've lost another local business," Ms. Oswald said. "I guess now she can sleep at night instead of worrying where the money is coming from, but I could relate to her situation. We're right there with her."
Ms. Oswald said sales at Lambertville Hardware showed some improvement last fall with an increase of work at the area's auto plants. "As people start to work more, we'll be fine," she said. But it's been a rough four years for the neighborhood hardware niche.
"We closed our Sylvania store in 2007. We couldn't see it making it," Ms. Oswald said. "Now, knowing what it's been like between 2007 and 2012, I'm glad we did close it. It would have never made it," she said.
Jim Bennet, owner of Colony Hardware in Toledo, said 30 years ago there were 10 small neighborhood hardware stores on the Monroe Street and Secor Road corridors between downtown Toledo and downtown Sylvania. Now "we're the only one left," he said.
Most were done in by big-box home improvement retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe's, which have large advertising budgets and are better able to weather economic downturns, Mr. Bennet said.
"I look at the big items that we sell and they sell, and we are very competitive with them," he said, noting his $318 price on a 40-gallon water heater is the same as his big-box rivals.
"But when you get down to it, they sell more by accident than we sell on purpose. It's hard to compete," he said.
While the Toledo area will lose Fleeger's, it will gain another neighborhood hardware store.
Columbus businessman Nick Redfield said Wednesday that he plans to open an Ace Hardware store in a former Rite Aid in downtown Sylvania in April.
He said he has studied the local market for some time and believes he understands the challenges facing neighborhood hardware stores.
"It's not an easy game. But we think we've got a better formula, and we're farther away from the big boxes than others," he said.
Mr. Redfield said he spoke to Ms. Fleeger-Koenig to gather advice. His store, he said, will be one-third the size of Fleeger's and will be aimed to cater to the older housing and housing developments nearby.
"It's a tough row to hoe but I'm hoping that I'm coming in a good position," Mr. Redfield said. "I've been working on this for a year. It's a tough world and I'm looking to put up a good fight."
Contact Jon Chavez at: email@example.com or 419-724-6128.