Northern Tool Builds Up its Omnichannel Foundation With Brick-and-Mortar Expansion

Northern Tool Builds Up its Omnichannel Foundation With Brick-and-Mortar Expansion

Launched by Don Kotula in 1981 as a mail-order business that offered a patented log splitter design, Northern Tool & Equipment moved into brick-and-mortar retail later that year, expanded online in the 2000s and is now a leading omnichannel retailer for tradespeople, DIY enthusiasts and hobbyists. While the company maintains its Kotula family roots, with Don’s sons Ryan and Wade as owners, the last two years have seen Northern led by CEO Suresh Krishna.

Committed to expanding its reach through both existing channels and new opportunities, Krishna believes the centerpiece of Northern is brick-and-mortar. The company now counts 125 doors across 22 states, and Krishna plans to more than double the store footprint to more than 300 locations in the next seven to 10 years. Northern’s business traditionally has been concentrated in the Midwest and southern U.S., reaching into North Dakota and east to Fredericksburg, Va. with a large presence in Texas and Louisiana.

“Contrary to what other companies are doing where they’re investing so much in ecommerce, we are doubling down on brick-and-mortar,” said Krishna in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Starting this year, we’re going to be opening 15 to 20 stores a year.”

Engagement Across All Channels

This focus on brick-and-mortar is aligned with a planned expansion of omnichannel services. Krishna plans to use the stores to support BOPIS for shoppers who live near its locations, and ship-from-store services for a nationwide audience.


“We’re building what we call a two-day network, so if you want to order online, you should be able to get the product within two days,” said Krishna. “There are multiple ways in which we can do that, and the store is at the center. We have four warehouses in the country that stock all of our products. We have the ability for a customer when they order online to buy online and pick up at the store if they just drive 20 minutes and get it, or they’re using our store as a place to ship product like a mini warehouse.”

Additionally, in-store customers who can’t find the product they seek can order it online and have it shipped either to that store location or directly to their home.

Retailer Offers Tangible Support for Skilled Trades

With its audience deeply rooted in skilled trades, Northern has continued to offer services that include repairs and maintenance, similar to those first offered by its founder more than 40 years ago. The retailer also has expanded its offerings within this area, acquiring Jacks Small Engines, which sells replacement parts for engines, tools and power equipment, in April 2021.

The deal allowed Northern to access more than 3 million parts across 500 vendors, including the most recognizable names in the business, such as Toro, Kawasaki and Briggs & Stratton. In the past, if a customer approached Northern for a repair on a product part that the company didn’t carry, the retailer would be delayed nearly one week while it waited for the part to arrive.

“We acquired Jacks because they gave us access to millions of different parts,” Krishna said. “We have created a digital interface between our system and Jacks. They place the order and the product parts come the next day. But that is an innovation of listening to the customer and providing them with a solution. We found a way to serve them faster. Normally it would have taken us seven days to repair. Now we can get it to them in a couple of days.”

Additionally, the Northern pool of employees includes a large number of tradespeople who have retired or shifted career focus. By hiring associates who understand the needs of the Northern shopper and can serve as partners in customers’ completion of their projects, the company provides expert guidance.

“That creative problem-solving exists in our retail stores today, and we have sales associates who genuinely understand what a customer is looking to do, then provide ideas on solutions that are there within our store,” Krishna said. “Our salespeople are trained to really understand what a customer needs.”

Committing to the future of its customer base, Northern also invests in promoting trade jobs among students. The Northern Tools for the Trades initiative partners with schools to offer financial support, instruction and tools that support technical education to students, while also providing a head start to careers in skilled trades. There is also an internship program the company has arranged between a high school in Rogers, Minn. and professionals from the retailer’s Parts, Service and Repair Department. New efforts in Minnetonka, Minn. include connecting customers to local high school students who are interested in gaining experience in the field, and representatives from Northern volunteer on the trade advisory boards of Minnesota high schools. The retailer also supports the Texas High School Welding Series, offering space for the competition where students create projects and are judged by master welders.

“We believe it’s our duty to make sure we can help build the next generation [of tradespeople],” said Krishna. “We are creating an awareness that there are other career paths that are good. These are good jobs, jobs where people can be their own masters as entrepreneurs. The ones who are building the future of our country are people who work with their hands building the country’s highways, roads, bridges and buildings. Skilled tradespeople are putting their heart and mind and soul into doing something and creating something.”

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