In 2017, Lee Valley Tools, an Ottawa-founded 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 retirees and experienced hobbyists, were shopping at the store less often. “We were under tremendous pressure because we were facing a core customer base that was aging out,” explains Jason Tasse, president and chief operating officer.
Tasse knew the company wasn’t keeping up with each emerging generation of shoppers—and how they liked to shop—since its marketing model was based on catalogue distribution. The retailer needed to attract more 25- to 45-year-olds to grow its customer base and stay relevant.
The Lee Valley executive team decided to engage an external company that specializes in digital rebranding to research its target customer base. They learned that their existing website could be perceived as “intimidating and overwhelming” by demographics who were largely new to the products that Lee Valley sells. At the time, it was text-heavy and required product knowledge. When customers would visit the site, they’d see items like a made-in-Canada hand plane that’s ideal for experienced woodworkers—but the majority of everyday shoppers would not know how to use it.
In September 2019, Lee Valley relaunched its website with an eye to attracting younger customers. The website was now image-rich, which was more appealing to beginner hobbyists. The home page featured instructions for novice projects that could be completed in a weekend, like a cedar planter box. The company also ran video campaigns—including a holiday commercial inspiring people to make and give personalized gifts—on social-media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.
The website relaunch happened at the right time. When the pandemic hit, Lee Valley was well-equipped to meet the demand of customers picking up new at-home hobbies, like gardening. “We saw triple-digit growth in online activity,” Tasse says. There was also a 200 per cent increase in new customers to Lee Valley from April 2020 to the end of 2021.
To maintain the interest of its new customer base beyond the pandemic, Lee Valley rolled out a series of 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, like Canadian chef Matty Matheson, who shares his farm-to-table cooking tips, and Halifax-based gardening expert Niki Jabbour. In January 2022, it introduced Make It Yourself kits aimed at new hobbyists; they contain all the tools, parts and video instructions required for a specific project, like a charcuterie board.
In the first half of 2022, the company increased its Instagram following by 134 per cent. (Sixty per cent of its total Instagram followers are now in the 25-to-45 age range.) Sales from customers age 18 to 24 saw a 61 per cent increase in 2021 compared to 2020. The business has plans for how it will continue to engage this demographic. Partnerships with TikTok and Instagram influencers will further target younger buyers, and post-purchase emails, like instructions on how to sharpen a chisel, will help the company keep in touch with shoppers. Virtual workshops will also teach customers new skills.
Tasse cautions other retailers eager to attract a new cohort of customers that the process can be long, slow and sometimes uncomfortable. He encourages brands to research their existing and prospective customer bases before making any decisions. “Don’t speculate on who your customers are,” Tasse says. “Data is richer and more accurate. The more you know your customer, the more precise you can be.”