Monday, March 14, 2011


A while back, I stopped off at my local “big-box” home-improvement emporium to buy a coupling, a common electrical fitting that costs less than a dollar. As usual, I found myself rooting through a disorganized jumble of products on the shelf, and when I finally tracked down the bin that was supposed to contain the fittings, it was of course empty. Coming away sad and empty-handed once again, I paid a visit to the customer service window to ask when the coupling might be restocked. The clerk peered into his omniscient monitor and informed me:

“The computer says we have eight of them.”

Only after leading him to the scene in real time was I able to convince him that, regardless of what the inventory software might indicate, there were in fact precisely zero couplings in stock. Whether the eight virtual ones in his computer were misplaced, stolen, or had entered another dimension, I didn’t know or care. I just wanted to find out when more real ones would arrive.

“The truck’s coming in tomorrow,” he said, his tone betraying more wishful thinking than certainty. Predictably enough, the parts weren’t there the next day, nor the following day, nor the day after that. In fact, I went back two weeks later and the bin was still empty.

Alas, this experience is par for the course at the big-box home improvement centers. Admittedly, it’s too easy to bash these places, with their perpetually baffled-looking young clerks and inevitable shortfall of exactly the item you’re looking for. And I’ll freely admit that the big-boxes do have redeeming qualities. Their attractive pricing has undoubtedly helped fuel America’s recent home-improvement mania. They’ve also helped acclimate many novice do-it-yourselfers to the often intimidating world of construction by exposing them to a huge range of building products.

But in many equally important ways, the big-box centers have utterly failed the consumer. They’ve dragged both customer service and inventory control down to a new low in the history of retailing, while simultaneously flooding the home-improvement market with second-rate brands from manufacturers especially geared to supply their voracious demand for merchandise. Consumers--myself included--generally seem willing to put up with such shortcomings for the perceived reward of convenience and low prices, but then again, everyone has a limit. I’ve reached mine.

Since the big-boxes are so profitable (the chain I’m referring to reported a 72% increase in profit for the last quarter of 2010), one would think that hiring a few more knowledgeable clerks for a few more dollars an hour might be in the realm of possibility. So would keeping better tabs on the inventory.  Instead, these stores seem to be moving in the opposite direction, with increasing confusion of both employees and inventory.  

While local Mom-and-Pop hardware stores claim they can no longer compete with the vast big-box chains, that’s not quite so: In that old-fashioned realm called service, they blow the doors off the big-boxes, and always have.  While it’s a rare thrill to glean useful information from big-box clerks, those august folks in your local hardware store routinely diplay an almost supernaturally comprehensive knowledge of the field.  

The Mom-and-Pops have one more uncanny trump card I’ve never been able to fathom:  The big-boxes, despite their vast inventories, frequently either don’t carry the item you need, or else have run out of it. Yet more than once, I’ve walked into some musty, twenty-foot-wide old hardware store, asked for a ridiculously esoteric pipe fitting, and had the clerk nonchalantly reply: “Over there by the window.”

Big-boxes, take heed:  Cheap stuff will get you just so far.

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