The largest retailer in the U.S. rural lifestyle market operates more than 1,085 stores in 44 states. If Tractor Supply Co. (TSCO) doesn’t have a store in your sales territory yet, there may be one shortly. The company’s 2010 annual report says it has identified 800 potential new markets for future stores. For the next month, the company’s web site lists 12 grand openings (one in California, the rest in states east of the Mississippi River).

Tomorrow, on February 1, TSCO is expected to report that its fourth quarter profit rose a healthy 37% vs. a year ago, building on gains of 71%, 18% and 45% in the prior three quarters.

“Our expectation is 2012 will be yet another good year for Tractor Supply,” Jim Wright, CEO of TSCO says.

It’s a strong showing from a publically traded company that sits right in the rural lifestyle dealer market. Its stores are focused on supplying the lifestyle and maintenance needs of recreational farmers and ranchers as well as tradesmen and small businesses.  

Under frequently asked questions on its web site, TSCO responds to the question, “What can you buy at Tractor Supply?”: “Everything except tractors. At TSCO, customers find everything they need to maintain their farms, ranches, homes and animals. As the inventors of the ‘do it yourself’ trend, our customers handle practically every chore themselves, from repairing wells to building fences, welding gates together, constructing feed bins, taking care of livestock and pets, repairing tractors and trucks and building trailers for hauling.”

As an independent dealer who is also catering to rural lifestylers and professional landscape contractors, is TSCO a friend or a foe?

The closest TSCO store to Rural Lifestyle Dealer’s office is in Watertown, Wis. — midway between Milwaukee and Madison. There’s a lot of merchandise packed into a relatively small store. It has a selection of trailers, attachments and consumer-grade zero-turn mowers parked near the front doors. Like most chain stores, TSCO doesn’t service the equipment it sells, but carries a good selection of parts, including replacement engines.

The retailer’s 2010 annual report says 94% of its annual sales in 2010 came from its livestock and pet (39%); hardware, tools and truck (23%); seasonal gift and toy products (22%); and clothing and footware categories (10%). The “agriculture” category accounted for 6% of sales in 2010.

TSCO doesn’t provide the results of individual stores, but there’s a lot of competition for its Watertown location. It’s next to a giant Wal-Mart and across town from a Farm & Fleet, a Wisconsin-based rural consumer retailer with 35 locations throughout Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin. Plus, there are farm equipment dealers (John Deere and New Holland) located across the road from both Tractor Supply and Farm & Fleet.

Whether or not you consider TSCO friendly competition in your region, there are some best practices that rural lifestyle dealers can adopt by looking at how the company goes to market. Start by walking around its bright, clean stores. Then, surf its web site. On the day we looked, promotions for dog food and welding equipment held top spots on the home page.

Not only does it list all of the equipment available through it stores, a “Know-How Central” tab quickly takes do-it yourselfers to a landing page offering tips on horse feed, welding and things people can do now for their gardens. I suspect most TSCO customers reading those how-to articles do so with pen and paper in hand so they can make a list of products to buy on their next trip to the store.