After a rigorous day at the office, Bob Pennington dons his epoxy-encrusted T-shirt and makes a beeline for his shed, where he stows the 34-foot twin-engine cabin cruiser he is building. Pennington, a 47-year-old operations manager for a Jackson, Miss. trucking company, has spent every spare minute for the past three years on the boat. For him, it is its own reward.
“When everybody else is in bed, I stand there looking at what I’ve managed to do one stick at a time, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up on end,” he says.
After the frenzied, cash-driven spree of the 1980s, many baby boomers are retreating to the garage for a sense of personal accomplishment. The hours when they roll up their sleeves and restore old automobiles or work with wood provide a special satisfaction. And retailers, noting a growing demand for tools and hardware, have begun pitching their wares to this affluent audience. It’s become an interesting small business opportunity, according to entrepreneur-focused blog Launchscore.com.
Antique car associations report that doctors, lawyers and architects are combing junkyards for spare parts. No fewer than 29,000 home-built airplanes are under construction at the moment in garages and backyards across the nation. Meanwhile, a slew of amateur boat builders are crafting classic reproductions of Kris Krafts.
Woodworking dominates the back-to-the-garage movement. Today, 11 woodworking magazines and six mail-order tool companies cater to an estimated 10 million woodworkers. Each week on PBS’ The New Yankee Workshop, Bob Vila’s affable former partner Norm Abrams walks 4.5 million viewers through simple furniture-building projects. Executive producer Russell Morash gets hundreds of request to feature cradle and computer desk construction.
To get a better handle on the new breed of woodworkers, Better Homes and Gardens’ Wood magazine and Rodale Press’ American Woodworker each conducted consumer surveys. Results reveal the average woodworker is male and spends 7.3 hours a week in his shop. Roughly 50% have managerial or professional jobs and their median household income is $45,000.
This kind of demographic makes marketers salivate. It’s no surprise retailers are stocking up on screws, slides and hinges, as well as on drill bits and circular saw blades. Furniture refinishing remains the leading project category, and demand for sandpaper, spray paint, polyurethane and oil finishes has risen. Garrett Wade, a specialty-tool mail-order company in New York, has set up a hot line for customers with questions about matching colors and finishes, as well as finishing techniques.
Garrett Wade’s Woodworking, like many catalogues, goes after high-end craftspersons. Tools are lovingly displayed like gems on the page. Catalogue copy flatters readers’ image of themselves as serious hobbyists with detailed explanations of, for instance, why Japanese saws cut on the pull rather than on the push stroke.
Lee Valley Tools in Ottawa, Ont., recognizing another characteristic of the boomer demographic, markets scaled-down tools for children. “There are some horribly concerned yuppies who want this quality-time thing with their children,” suggests the wry owner Leonard Lee.
Nevertheless he sympathizes with professionals who miss the gratification of working with their hands. “These guys sit in front of a computer monitor all day without producing anything discernible. Few people can look back on a day’s work anymore and say `I moved a pile of dirt from point A to point B today,'” Lee says.
Lee and other retailers must compete with Sears, the industry giant. Woodworkers still recognize the Craftsman brand from their fathers’ shops, and associate it with quality and value. Sears has expanded its tool offerings over the past two years to ensure woodworkers will remain loyal.
Despite the competition, however, marketers with an eye on the garage are finding plenty of baby boomers ready to spend in order to create. And they haven’t even reached retirement yet.