Wilt, I can't answer the chicken/egg question, but your comment about the local hardware store minded me of something I was wondering a while ago. We have a nearby local hardware store that is affiliated with the "ACE Hardware" group. Great little store. I'm not sure if that's a franchise or what, but it does give the owner the advantage of some significant group buying power, and advertising. At the same time, each store is not a "cookie cutter" building and the owner(s) have the ability to customize their stores to the local market. It's my first choice when I need hardware.
I travel the US for work, and often find myself looking for metric hardware. I live in Orlando FL, and love the College Park ACE Hardware, so I seek out ACE/Truevalue stores when I'm on the road. I haven't had a bad experience in one yet.
Colonial Photo and Hobby in Orlando is a great place to shop also. Very helpful staff, in fact they are so helpful often you have to wait in line 15 minutes for the clerk to finish helping someone else. It's a pain for me because, I typically already know what I want, and I'm just buying it locally to have it right this second. I'll give up 10-15% for that.