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'A toy store for men'

Northern Tool and Equipment, where "serious tools" take center stage, opens the first of three local stores.

Published December 23, 2005

[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
Luis Perez, left, and Sixto Lavalle check out a go-cart for sale at the new Northern Tool and Equipment store at 3906 W Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa. "We're all about the testosterone," said Roger Bunn, vice president of sales for the Burnside, Minn., company.

James Rose, who teaches auto mechanics, gets a call from his wife telling him his time is up at the Northern Tool and Equipment store in Tampa.

TAMPA - TV programmers came up with The Man Show and Spike TV. Beer ads are about guy behavior. But it's rare these days to see a store try to get in touch with its masculine side.

That would be Northern Tool and Equipment, a retailer that celebrates men's lust for power tools with the slogan "Where Warriors Prepare for Battle."

"We're all about the testosterone," said Roger Bunn, vice president of sales for the Burnside, Minn., company that this week opened its first of three Tampa Bay area stores . "If you can't find it in our store, we've got a catalog that's 500 pages of sheer, gut-wrenching, screaming power."

The Office Depot-sized, bricks-and-mortar version of a popular mail order catalog, Northern Tool comes filled with a broad array of "serious tools" for mechanics and the do-it-yourselfers who buy 60 percent of them. Mixed in are little surprise impulse items chosen for the blue-collar mentality. An $849 mini dirt bike or a $199 Schwinn Electric Scooter. A clock that looks like a mag wheel. Die-cast model construction equipment and a sit-down version bucket shovel that's sized for digging in a sandbox.

"This is a toy store for men," said Damien Freeman, manager of the Tampa store at 3906 W Hillsborough Ave. that even stocks go-carts.

Northern decided to market itself as a macho haven when research found more than 95 percent of its customers are men. So why not romance 'em?

Women are welcome. They just have to be willing to wade through a utilitarian store with a hard hat edge. Store planners are guided by the theory that "women shop, but men buy" - so don't get in their way.

The storefront features a 24-inch I-beam suspended by pillars of galvanized steel drain pipe. The floor is bare concrete that does not distract from the riding lawn mowers, air compressors, welding equipment and chain saws.

The products are center stage in a quick-in, quick-out layout that offers extensive product information, an on-site mechanic and impulse items with a male sense of funny.

Recent big hits? A battery-powered fart sound machine. A cigarette lighter shaped like a pig that flames from the snout. Safety glasses that double as blue reflective sunglasses.

The tool chain even stocks candy by the checkout lane, but shifted the emphasis from chocolate bars to big bags of chewy sweets after learning customers love to toss sacks of snacks in the glove compartment.

Indeed, Larry the Cable Guy would feel right at home. About 10 percent of the floor space is dedicated to add-on products for pickups such as aluminum tool boxes, hitches and gas transfer tanks.

Posters line the walls with do-it-yourselfer proverbs: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Tools. Never Start Something You Can't Finish or at Least Weld, Hammer or Duct Tape. Never Bring a Shovel to an Auger Fight. There is No Shame in Not Owning Tools Just Like There is No Shame in Holding Your Wife's Purse for a Minute.

The marketing strategy borrows heavily from TV and film star Tim Allen. Before he was a Home Depot pitchman, Allen had a popular stand-up act that saluted male bonding at the Sears tool department. He was always drawn there in a quest for "more power" to salvage home improvement projects.

Northern experimented with how far to take maleness. A catalog cover featuring a model in Daisy Duke shorts and hard hat failed to outdraw one showing power tools. "Our customer would rather look at an engine hoist," Bunn said. So company calendars show tools.

Humor is the common thread in Northern commercials. In one spot, a big construction worker struggles to penetrate a chunk of concrete with a tiny chain saw. Viewers think everybody is laughing in the background at his pink tutu. The laughter stops, however, when he pulls out a monster concrete saw that obliterates the obstacle.

Northern is the creation of Don Kotula, a 60-year-old onetime Caterpillar heavy-equipment salesman who controls the closely held company. The son of a scrap yard dealer who grew up in the Minnesot a Iron Range, Kotula got into the mail order business 25 years ago with a log-splitting machine and the hydraulic equipment that made it run. He advertised in Popular Mechanics and Popular Science and generated more than $1-million in sales for a business based in his garage. He expanded to gas engines, generators, pressure washers and power equipment. In 2004, Northern Tool did $655-million in sales. Sales in stores open more than a year rose a respectable 11 percent. This winter the company Web site will be upgraded so online orders can be picked up at a store.

Northern is dwarfed by industry giants Home Depot and Lowe's. But Northern's power tool lines begin where the two home improvement giants' selections begin to tail off. And you certainly won't see any froufrou departments like paint, appliances and window treatments.

Kotula said his rivals' build-up of such extras made them "lady's stores."

"When I go into one of those stores, my wife goes along, but when I go to Northern I get to go by myself," he told MinnesotaBusiness. "Once you're married, a man's only space is his garage or a corner of the basement."

Mail order sales led Northern Tool to open stores in Southeast states where outdoor activities are more year-round.

Hurricanes and humidity are a major cause of Northern Tool's latest growth spurt in Florida. The chain's selection of 20 types of mildew-fighting pressure washers and a collection of 35 types of electric generators make even Home Depot's or Sears' seem puny. While a Home Depot stocks fewer than a dozen types as big as 5,000 watts, Northern goes all the way up to 150,000 watts.

The chain's generator sales leaped ten-fold after the hurricane cycle got more active in Florida and other coastal states in 2004. This year they rose 15 percent over that.

"We learned how to handle hurricane needs at our Miami stores after Hurricane Andrew," said Serafin Wanes, regional sales manager. "We queue people up in the parking lot and sell generators right off the truck."

Mark Albright can be reached at or 727 893-8252.

[Last modified December 23, 2005, 01:31:02]

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