In 2017, Lee Valley Tools, an Ottawa-established specialty retailer focused on woodworking and gardening tools, entered its 40th year of business. But its customers, who were typically in their mid-50s to mid-80s and largely retired and experienced hobbyists, were shopping less at the store. “We were under immense pressure as we faced a core customer base that was aging,” explains Jason Tase, president and chief operating officer.
Tase knew the company was not keeping up with each emerging generation of shoppers—and how they preferred to shop—because its marketing model was based on catalog distribution. The retailer needed to attract more 25- to 45-year-olds to grow its customer base and remain relevant.
Lee Valley’s executive team decided to engage an outside company specializing in digital rebranding to research their target customer base. They found that their existing website could be perceived as “intimidating and overwhelming” by demographics that were largely new to the products Lee Valley sold. At the time, it was text-heavy and required product knowledge. When customers visit the site, they’ll see items like the Made-in-Canada Hand Plane, which is ideal for experienced woodworkers—but most everyday shoppers won’t know how to use one.
In September 2019, Lee Valley relaunched its website to attract younger customers. The website was now image-rich, more attractive to beginning hobbyists. The home page has instructions for novice projects that can be completed in a weekend, such as the cedar planter. The company also ran video campaigns—including a holiday commercial inspiring people to create and give personalized gifts—on social-media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest.
The relaunch of the website came at the right time. When the pandemic hit, Lee Valley was well equipped to meet the demand of customers taking up new home hobbies such as gardening. “We saw a triple-digit increase in online activity,” Tase says. Lee Valley also saw a 200 percent increase in new customers from April 2020 to the end of 2021.
To maintain the interest of its new customer base beyond the pandemic, Lee Valley initiated several strategies. In June 2021, the company launched video content in the new “Discover” section of its website through partnerships with influencers popular with Millennials and Gen Z, such as Canadian chef Matty Matheson, who is known for his farm-to-table cooking. tips, and Halifax-based horticulturist Nicky Jabor. In January 2022, it introduced Make It Yourself kits aimed at newbies; They contain all the tools, parts, and video instructions needed for a specific project, such as a charcuterie board.
In the first half of 2022, the company increased its Instagram followers by 134 percent. (Sixty percent of its total Instagram followers are now in the 25 to 45 age range.) Sales to customers aged 18 to 24 saw a 61 percent increase in 2021 compared to 2020. The business plans how it will continue to engage this demographic. Partnerships with TikTok and Instagram influencers will further target younger shoppers, and post-purchase emails, such as instructions on sharpening chisels, will help the company stay in touch with buyers. The virtual workshops will also teach new skills to the customers.
Tasse cautions other retailers eager to attract a new group of customers that the process can be long, slow and sometimes inconvenient. He encourages brands to research their existing and potential customer bases before making any decisions. “Don’t make guesses about who your customers are,” says Tase. “The data is richer and more accurate. The more you know your customer, the more accurate you can be.”