Why Home Depot Works

In a move to mix things up a little, Oliver and I departed from our usual post-Formosa Tea House trip to Indigo and went, instead, to Home Depot. I didn’t have anything specific in mind save for a vague sense that the time was ripe to buy some doohickies for the house. We emerged, an hour later, and $124 poorer, with pipe wrap, window film, goggles, rubber gloves, an outside electrical outlet, some expanding foam, a flashlight, four nine-volt batteries and four 100 watt light bulbs.

This was the most money I’ve ever spent at Home Depot, and I bought a lot of stuff that, all other things being equal, I would have purchased at Canadian Tire. Here’s some thoughts about the experience:

  • Home Depot organizes things differently. I’m not exactly sure how differently, but I found it almost impossible to find anything in the “usual places” I would look (read “the places I’d look in Canadian Tire”). I don’t mean to suggest that their organizational system is bad, simply that it’s unusual.
  • You can buy almost anything at Home Depot, from fridges and stoves to enough lumber to build a house. It’s sort of like Toys ‘R Us for adults.
  • The grey-haired men in orange aprons really do seem to know what they’re talking about.
  • The aisles are very pleasantly wide (except, oddly, in the hardware section, where they are way, way too narrow). Wide aisles make it easy to navigate a shopping cart around the store, and the smooth concrete floor makes for ez-glide shopping cart action.
  • The smooth concrete floor ends, strangely, as you exit the main store into the entrance/exit area, meaning that ones shopping cart (and any children therein) get unpleasantly shaken all about upon leaving.
  • They have really nice customer washrooms: clean, bright, spacious, and a boy-height urinal and baby change table in the men’s washroom. Oliver was very intrigued by the auto-flush toilets, and thought that I had super-powers rendering me capable of remotely flushing toilets when he wasn’t looking.
  • All the giant Home Depot-like stores have a reputation (or at least a perception among the uninitiated like me) that because of their super-sized-ness, they have the best prices. I have no idea whether this is true, mostly because I have very little idea what things actually cost (anywhere). So perhaps they have excellent prices. Or perhaps they charge double what everyone else does. Who knows.

That’s all very well and good, but you know the real reason that Home Depot works? It’s because it’s completely self-service. By coincidence I made a trip to Schurman’s later in the day, and found that I had to go to the counter to ask for many of the things — lumber, insulation, etc. — I was looking for. At Schurman’s these are all “out in the back,” which requires not only ordering inside at the counter, but then traveling out into “the yard” with ones car, finding a burly man to help locate purchases and loading them into the car. At Home Depot everything is right out in the aisle — 2x4s are the new apple juice — and you just load up a giant cart and roll up to the cash.

Remember the old days when you went to the liquor store and everything was kept behind the counter? You had to know what you were looking for, know its name, and be confident enough to ask for it. It was a great impediment to easy liquor purchase. Now we have self-service liquor stores, and I can spend hours wandering the aisles comparing rum brands. It’s much less intimidating, and therefor much more purchase-friendly.

The effect is the same at Home Depot. Dorks like me, prone to describing home building materials like “that stop-sign shaped metal box that the wires run into,” can be completely comfortable at Home Depot because all we need to do is wander around until we find what we’re looking for. And even if we do have to ask one of the orange-vested elders, the DIY environment means that the intimidation factor is much, much lower (they expect you to be a dork, you expect them to expect that you’re a dork, etc.).

All that said, I’m not entirely sure that we’ll make Home Depot a regular stop on the Saturday morning rounds. The experience was pleasant, but not in the soul-stirring way that a good trip to Canadian Tire is pleasant. Visiting Home Depot feels a little unpatriotic; going to Canadian Tire feels like fulfilling ones national duty.

Postscript: Rob Lantz blogged earlier in the week about his own disappointing experiences at Home Depot. So, this time at least, I’m forced to whine “Lantz!” (using the “Newman!” voice). Yes, this is an inside joke.


Sam Abuelsamid's picture
Sam Abuelsamid on November 27, 2005 - 03:05 Permalink

I do agree with much of what you say about home depot. The wide aisles are nice. However, I often find that sometimes it is just too big. I shop there regularly because it only a few minutes from my house. I know where the stuff usually is. But they have so much stuff that many times, I will be standing there scouring the racks for 5, 10, 15 minutes trying to find the piece I am looking for. The amazing thing is that for all the stuff they have there, I often still can’t find what I am looking for. Also there is the issue of the tyranny of choice. If I need a new bathroom faucet I go there and they have like 100 faucets and I have to choose. What is the difference between this $60 unit and the $300 one? Which of the 3 dozen grills or lawnmowers do I choose?

Although the guys in the orange aprons usually know what they are doing and know where stuff is in their departments. Have you ever actually tried to find one of these guys when you need one and there are more than 3 other people in the store? If you need a sheet of plywood cut in half or some pipe cut and threaded be prepared for a wait. When they get to you the service is good and they are courteous, there are just too few staff for a store of that size. Frankly if I still had the option of Canadian Tire (none of those here in Michigan) I would generally choose it over home depot. I would also prefer the option of smaller stores that had more specific products that I could go to for the things that I need. Unfortunately most of these stores have gone away in the face of the giant home depots, lowes, and wal-marts.

DerekMac's picture
DerekMac on November 27, 2005 - 19:35 Permalink

You forgot my 3 1/2 year old’s favorite feature: the racing car shopping carts! It’s a good thing, though, that the aisles are wide, as the long wheelbase of these contraptions makes “farmers” turns essential.
He is content to stay in the cart when at other stores he would be out wandering the aisles (not a good thing in a store which has large band saws!).
These carts are sometimes in short supply, and I often have to snag one from the parking lot on my way in.

gm's picture
gm on November 28, 2005 - 16:01 Permalink

I far prefer Rona to Home Depot. The major fact is that they are a Canadian company. Also I found the people working there to be more knowledgeable.

They do have the problem of not carrying as many different varieties of a particular stock item as HD, but if I can’t get it there I will go grudgingly to HD. As well they seem to have a chronic out of stock problem the occurs every once in a while. I had it explained to me that once they go through so much in sales they have to inventory the WHOLE store before they can order anything more. Kind of stupid if you ask me.

All this being said, I still find it more friendly then HD, especially with you expecting them to expect you to be a dork factor.

Also I might as well at least collect the air miles and pay for part of my next vacation while I’m renovating my house. Plus they have free pop corn at the door.