Canadian Retailer Busy Bee Tools Sees ‘Incredible Growth’ with Plans for New Store Locations [Interview]

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Busy Bee Tools has experienced incredible growth in the past few years and is now poised to expand its retail footprint to more locations in Canada.

The retailer, which was established in 1976, currently has 10 locations – one in BC, two in Alberta, six in Ontario and one in Nova Scotia.

“I took over as President about four years ago. In that time, the company has grown by 61 per cent,” said Hanif Balolia, President of Busy Bee Tools. “We recently went through a wave of retirements on the senior management side. Part of me taking over, one of the biggest tasks was actually rebuilding the senior management team. 

“The majority of our team at head office is actually quite young and we have some pretty significant growth plans. In 2021, we expanded our head office and distribution centre by 20,000 square feet and that allowed us to keep up with our growth. We have expanded significantly through e-commerce but also focusing on same store sales. 

“We obviously didn’t want to open a new brick and mortar location during COVID. That would not have been wise. But brick and mortar we still see fantastic potential for our locations. The reason for that is because of the type of product that we carry, the product mix. It’s still a lot of heavy machinery and customers do like to see that still in person. We’re not competing too heavily with the Amazon’s and the large third-party players when it comes to machinery.”

Image: Busy Bee Tools

In 2022, the retailer invested heavily into its digital infrastructure across the company, added Balolia. 

“That was a big venture for us. That was very important to me to make sure our digital transformation and our digital structure was very sound to allow us to grow. That allows us in theory to have what we like to call a store in a box. So we can effectively open locations faster because we don’t have to worry so much about technology anymore like we used to,” he said.

“So our plan right now after these two significant things were done which was the expansion of our distribution centre and completing our digital transformation the plan is to now scale e-commerce even further, grow our product line, grow our product offering and open more locations with a focus on Ontario to begin. 

“We have six locations in Ontario at the moment. I personally feel that the market is still underserved for our products. Ontario is a strong province. Our customer base is vast in Ontario. Our head office is in Ontario which allows for greater control and operational efficiency. The changes we’ve made in the last few years are allowing us to now capitalize on this potential growth.”

The Behar Group Realty Inc. is handling the company’s real estate needs.

Hanif Balolia, Busy Bee Tools President

The brand was started by Balolia’s father in Burnaby, BC. 

“The original background is we were actually in the dry cleaning business and the family had 10 dry cleaning stores called Busy Bee Dry Cleaners. If you go to Vancouver, you’ll still see that brand is still there,” said Balolia. “My dad and his brother got out of the dry cleaning business a long time ago.

“They had a passion for tools and we were one of the first importers of woodworking machinery in Canada. So they began importing woodworking and metalworking machinery from Taiwan back in 1976-77 and the interest in the tool was growing. It was specifically growing among serious do it yourselfers, people who were doing this part time, making furniture, very crafty with their hands and machinery at the time was very expensive. You had a couple of main brands you could buy from.

Image: Busy Bee

“They started importing and that was obviously enough to show the family to get out of the dry cleaning business. We moved the head office of Busy Bee to the Toronto area in 1985 and the reason for that was just more opportunity for growth and we saw that as being a better location for our head office and from there we started to grow the business.”

The company today has a large and growing e-commerce business.

Typical store size is about 10,000 square feet although Edmonton, which is the largest, is about 14,000 square feet. The smallest store is London at just over 7,000 square feet but it will expand to 10,000 square feet.

Balolia also operates two other businesses. In 2009, he started an e-commerce company for home health care products. He is President and Founder of Agecomfort.com. Craftex Property is also another of his businesses. 

Image: Busy Bee Tools 40th Anniversary Video

In London, the real estate arm of the company has a five-acre retail plaza that it is building. There will be four to five buildings. Church’s Texas Chicken is going to be an anchor tenant with a drive-thru and Busy Bee is going to be one of the key and largest tenants in that plaza.

“We want to open (new locations) carefully because we’re also scaling e-commerce at the same time. I think we want to be in about 15 stores in the next four to five years,” said Balolia.

“We’re not looking as much into really commercial/industrial type locations. We want more retail presence, more retail traffic. We don’t mind paying a little bit more higher rent . . . In the past the history of the company would always sort of be locations in that industrial type of plaza, lower rents because we were a drive to destination but with the age of the internet drive to destinations are not as common in retail as they used to be.

“What’s happened over COVID a lot of people were at home and they ended up having time to work with their hands and get back into hobbies. This actually affected the younger generation more so than the older. Our customer base was actually dying. Our typical customer was over the age of 50 and what I mean by dying physically they were slowly getting to that age but also they also were fully retired and they had bought out the majority of the machines that they wanted. So what we were missing was that next generation to come and two things happened. The school system in Canada put woodworking classes back into the school system and the age of social media has really helped increase the interest in woodworking specifically. Woodworking has blown up on Instagram and a lot of people are doing things with their hands. That’s going to be a big part of the future.”

Prior to COVID, Busy Bee was offering workshops but they were scaled back because of the pandemic. Today, people are much more prone to watching videos from the comfort of their homes. In the future, Busy Bee will be launching an initiative where customers will get in depth training through their home on machines bought through the retailer.

The company has seen in the last few years a rise in a younger demographic of customer as well as more females.

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

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