Friday, September 27, 2002

Steven Ai, above, shows new houseware products at his store on Nimitz Highway. Some of the new wares for sale, from top, left to right, are a liquid hand soap dispenser, $13.99; car trash can, $5.99; Hydra can by Umbra in iris, $4.99; compost helper, $6.49; Umbra over-the-door hanger, $9.99.

City Mill
staying in step

The traditional Hawaii lumber and
rice mill has diversified as times change

Ruby Mata-Viti

Hardware store shopping list: nails, screwdriver, wood putty, wine rack, CD case. Yes, wine rack and CD case. City Mill, the Hawaii store that began as a lumber and rice mill in the late 1800s has proven its ability to keep up with the times, and its latest move has been to jazz up its aisles with contemporary housewares typical of Pier One or mail-order catalogs such as Pottery Barn and Hold Everything.

Fish shaped soap holder, $1.89.

Toilet bowl brushes with zig-zag shaped chrome handles, plastic trash bins in a rainbow of opaque colors, and "seaglass" toned liquid soap containers, for starters, now share the floor with the rugged stuff -- hammers, tool belts and caulking. The splashy decorative touches command attention at the Nimitz store, smack center in the main aisle fronting the cash registers. Items are displayed on sleek, sturdy wooden shelving, also for sale.

Hawaii has befriended a number of mainland chains and discount outlets -- such as Home Depot, Costco, Lowe's, Pier One, to name a few -- that have moved in during the past decade. City Mill, however, is like the old friend you count on; no matter how long or how far you've strayed, once back, you are reminded of the things that first drew you in.

One of those getting reacquainted recently was Joanne Torres of Liliha. "I haven't been here in a while, and this is the first I've seen this here," she said, holding up a blue translucent oblong dish rack. "It looks like something you would see in the Jetsons."

Her eyes widened as she flopped it over and saw the price. "I thought it would be much more expensive. These are things I'd expect to see in (catalogs and home) magazines, but not here."

STEVEN AI, City Mill's president and CEO, insists the move to diversify is not reactionary. "It's just a natural extension of our evolution," he said, referring to the fine balance between filling customers' needs and holding prices to where they stay affordable.

Inset, Soap pump in black, $13.99; wine rack $18.99.

One of the best and least expensive ways to spruce up a home, Ai said, is to update the accessories, so buyers brought in items like brushed chrome organization cubes, fish-shaped soap holders and whimsical over-the-door racks. Even the more mundane items have a little twist to them, he said, such as extension cords in unexpected colors like blue and green.

The bulk of the new inventory fills the organizational gap. "All of us, even the neatest person, needs organization items, whether they be for the bathroom, bedroom, kitchen," he said, "especially in Hawaii, where housing units are typically small and space is a premium."

Enter black iron CD holders, CD cases, stackable wine racks.

A mini compost container, shaped somewhat like a molar, caught the eye of former Hawaii resident Wally Trotter, on vacation from Oregon. "This is an interesting shape, but how do you use it?," he asked, inspecting the lid for instructions. Trotter, who was accompanying his daughter on an errand, left Hawaii in February, and during this visit noticed the new merchandise immediately, especially the row of trash bins in assorted shapes and colors. "Seems like they have a larger inventory, more variety."

The container in hand is for temporary storing of food waste, he concluded, but is attractive enough to place on the kitchen counter near the sink until it's full, with contents ready to be transferred to a main composter.

Carol Ai, Steven's sister and vice president, said most of their customers are divided equally among the genders, but noticed that women now linger amid the housewares while their significant others scout tools.

Men are also drawn to the new merchandise, which Carol describes as "your very basic black/white/chrome contemporary. It matches everything, and it's stylish without being over-the-top."

City Mill works hard to spot trends, fill customers' needs and keep items affordable, said Steven Ai, president and CEO. Items available go beyond hardware to include a wide array of decorative objects. These lamp shades are at the Nimitz store.

Karen Kimball of Nuuanu found the new soap holders at $13.99 "a bit expensive for City Mill," but not compared to other stores that might carry similar items. "It looks like designer stuff," she said, "more like final touches, things you would use to brighten the bathroom or the kitchen."

She thought it wise on City Mill's part to reinvent this side of itself and a plus for shoppers. "It's hard to find this kind of stuff (in Hawaii)."

Steven Ai, grandson of City Mill founder Chung Kun Ai, said not all items become hits, so they keep introducing inventory, "trying to bring new things in so customers have an opportunity to keep their house updated.

"We'll continue to do so; part of our goal and success thus far is based on that, filling the niche."

Which is good for the local community, who won't turn its back on a good deal no matter where, and would be pleased to see an old friend do well.

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