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Hardware Hank Express to close this month in downtown Willmar

As Anton Switajewski, left, rings up merchandise Friday, Paige Bajari bags the purchase at Hardware Hank Express of Willmar. Anton is the son of store owners Randy and Susie Czarnetzki. Anton, who has worked at the store for the past four years, and his girlfriend Paige are working long days during the closing sale. (Shelby Lindrud/Tribune)

WILLMAR—It wasn't an easy decision to make and it's definitely bittersweet, but Randy Czarnetzki and his wife, Susie, have decided the time has come to close Hardware Hank Express in Willmar, ending a 12-year run.

"It's not about the somewhat flat economy or the rotten winter we had, that was an exclamation point. It's not our changing demographics. It is a changing mindset of how people view retail," Czarnetzki said.

It was a common enough occurrence for Czarnetzki to have people come into his store only after the big box stores didn't have what they needed, he said. Then Czarnetzki would rarely see those customers again.

"It's a part of how retail is changing," Czarnetzki said.

Czarnetzki's stepson Anton Switajewski wrote on a commentary on Facebook about the store closing, commenting on this very issue.

"The biggest factor in our lack of business is that we are not everybody's first choice. When half, if not more, of your customers come to you when everyone else has failed them, that means you're only guaranteed their business after they've checked with everyone else. Well, that truth is, a store isn't going to survive under those circumstances," Switajewski said.

Even if those box stores had what the customer needed or wanted, it might not be the same quality as what Czarnetzki would have on his shelves, Czarnetzki said. Czarnetzki said it is not uncommon for manufacturers to create different quality merchandise depending on the store. A utility tool made for the local hardware store might have metal gears, for example, while the box store version of the exact same make and brand might have nylon, Czarnetki said.

Business at Hardware Hank Express has been declining for the past few years, enough of a drop that it no longer made financial sense for Czarnetzki to keep it open.

"It's been flat to down," Czarnetzki said. In the past couple of years his sales have dropped about 15 percent. By January of this year, Czarnetzki knew he would be closing.

The average customer transaction for the hardware store was $13.50 year-round. With 7,000 to 8,000 households in Willmar, Czarnetzki said if each one would have shopped once at the hardware store last year, things might have ended differently.

"We wouldn't be having this conversation," Czarnetzki said.

Czarnetzki purchased the hardware store from Gerry and Millie Meuleners in July 2004. The hardware business was the family business for Czarnetzki, whose grandfather and father owned Czarnetzki Hardware, which is still open in Sauk Rapids, though under different ownership.

There has been a hardware store in Willmar at the current location—314 Fifth St. S.W.—since 1934, Czarnetzki said. The current building was constructed in 1984, in the parking lot of the original store. The site of the original store is now the parking lot of the current. Gerry Meuleners bought the store from his father.

With the store closing, Czarnetzki and his family are now having to look toward the future. Czarnetzki said the store will be open until July 30, or when he runs out of stock. Already everything is marked down 40 to 70 percent.

"The first price is the best price. We've only had a few days of the sale and the place is already 40 percent cleaned out," Czarnetzki said.

Two to three weeks after the store closing Czarnetzki said there might be an auction to sell the rest of the merchandise. He hopes to sell the shelves and fixtures as well.

Czarnetzki said there has already been some interest in the building. He and his wife live above the store, so what happens with the building will decide where the couple goes as well.

Czarnetzki has other things to keep him busy, from his mobile blasting business to the couple's ongoing involvement in curling. He will also continue to serve on the Willmar Planning Commission, among his and his wife's many activities.

"I feel very confident I'll get back on my feet," Czarnetzki said.

While he is sad to see the hardware store go, Czarnetzki will look back on his time as the business' owner fondly, especially those regular customers.

"Our time in Willmar has been wonderful. We're still proud and very thankful for our customers," Czarnetzki said.