Here's a challenge, Lisle residents: Close your eyes. Picture downtown Main Street. Can you name each business in turn? Which areas are fuzzy?
A business owner who has watched the landscape change over a few decades said he still encounters customers who don't know what's available in their own downtown. And he struggles to find new ways to attract customers.
Bill Weldon took ownership of the hardware store at 4715 Main St. approximately three years ago, after working there for more than 20 years. He is an active member of the 's Downtown Business Council, which sponsors the summer car shows. He said he considers running the store his retirement.
is currently affiliated with Orgill Hardware Wholesalers, but Weldon said he is debating joining a co-op, or retail-owned buying group. The move would allow Weldon to purchase inventory at wholesale prices, and stay viable in a market dominated by chain stores.
"Big-boxes are a force to be reckoned with," Weldon said.
He said it's a customer's first inclination to shop at larger retailers, such as Home Depot or Menard's, but they often end up at his store, anyway. He said larger stores only reorder items that have moved off shelves in the past year, but he stocks plumbing fixtures that suit older homes in Lisle and Downers Grove.
"We get a lot of loyal customers, and people who don't want to drive, park in a huge lot, wander a 30,000-foot store for two-and-a-half hours looking for a nut," he said. "If you need something unique, you're wasting your gas driving."
He said people come to Weldon "for the advice and the popcorn," but mostly the advice.
Weldon said he's noticed that the best employees for the job are homeowners themselves. While experts obviously carry a breadth of knowledge, they often struggle to translate it to the customer. Weldon said homeowners tend to be the best salesmen because they've likely experienced the problems themselves, and can offer a few tricks.
Marketing is a Struggle
Like many small-business owners, Weldon is struggling to adapt to the changing marketing world. He has experimented with special promotions, but said it's been difficult finding the most effective format to reach customers.
Weldon has tried a couple variations of print ads. He said he received a good response from ads in Red Plum, but found it was too expensive to keep up long-term. Recently he's tried bi-weekly local newspaper promotions, with less success.
One of the services his store provides is key-cutting. Weldon said employees cut anywhere from 50-100 keys per day, but only five customers took advantage of a recent "buy one, get one" deal. He brought in extra machines to offer a deal on renting Rug Doctor cleaners, but customers did not take advantage.
Weldon said he's distributed flyers, email blasts, and direct mailers to little success. He does not believe employees from the new Navistar facility took advantage of a flyer he distributed through the Chamber of Commerce. He also offers a customer rewards program, which requires a name, street address, and email address. Members receive birthday coupons and a $5 discount for those who buy more than $250 in merchandise. He said he's often asked why the store asks for the contact information.
His answer: "Because you're going to get nothing if we don't have anywhere to send it."
Weldon has talked with other hardware store owners about how they use Facebook to promote business, but he finds this tactic more a labor of love than effective marketing.
Online coupons likely aren't in the cards, either. Weldon commended Groupon-type deals for their ability to boost sales at food service establishments, but he doesn't believe they would generate additional revenue for his business.
Even his hyper-local promotions haven't done as well as he thought they would.
Last year he sponsored a food drive, offering 10 percent off a purchase in exchange for donations, which he said garnered "barely any response." He made a "fill your bucket" partnership with , which would have allowed a maximum of 700 customers to receive a discount on any items they could fit inside the bucket. Twenty-seven people took advantage.
When he tried soliciting photos of residents' gardens, he received roughly two submissions.
His most successful promotion "far and away" is an annual turkey giveaway, which benefits two lucky customers.
He thinks the average shopper's attitude about downtown Lisle is part of the challenge.
"Getting people to come downtown is a problem," he said, mostly because those who do drive to Main Street do so for a specific reason. Whether they're there to drop off dry cleaning, pick up baked goods from , or buy a specialty product from Tina's Closet, most customers don't spend time exploring the business district.
He's also observed a decrease of motor traffic since Main Street was revamped roughly a decade ago, particularly Metra commuters who can now drive straight down Burlington Avenue to leave the commuter area, without using Main Street.
Despite the fact that there's been a hardware store in his space for many years, Weldon said he still hears Lisle residents say, "I didn't know you were here."
Weldon thinks the lack of interest is due to an ever-increasing number of offices and service-oriented business, which aren't open nights or weekends. The village is still searching for buyers for the Garfield lots between Main Street and PrairieWalk Pond. The former spaces for Zing, Wild Bran, and Vini remain empty.
Now that Navistar is in town, he'd like to see economic development efforts re-focus on small business.  While he said "retail anything" would be nice, Weldon specifically wants more downtown restaurants, a Game Stop, or even a microbrewery in the vacant bank building. He feels such additions would change the downtown atmosphere so customers were more inclined to stay and browse.
Fortunately, the early spring weather is drawing potential customers out of their homes and into the downtown. At this time of year Weldon said he gets a boost in foot traffic from those with canine companions looking for a treat.
Still, he warns gardeners not to jump the gun on their plantings this year. He advises anyone with an itch on their green thumb to keep their plants potted just a bit longer.
Weldon Hardware rates an average of five stars from Patch readers. Review the hardware store, or others in the village in our Directory.