Saturday, September 23, 2006

Self-Serve Retail: the trouble with Lowes and Home Depot

Huge home improvement retailers Lowes and Home Depot have hit a rough spot with investors and customers. Both had soft second quarter earnings and warn of slow sales. Their stocks are down about 15% for the year, and the housing market slowdown isn't the only cause.

Home Depot is famous for rotten customer service and Lowes isn't much better.

I went to Lowes last night to look for kitchen cabinets for my new house. You may not realize it, but cabinets are a big-ticket item. Decent ones start at about $150 a lineal foot. So I was about to spend some real money. The only problem was that there was nobody manning the large kitchen cabinets section of the store.

I pushed the "call an associate" button and an announcement was made over the loudspeaker asking for customer help at my location. An employee showed up to turn off the blinking call button, but he didn't work in that department so he went to find the right person. I waited ... and waited but nobody appeared. This is no isolated incident -- my sister had the same problem getting help when she bought kitchen cabinets at Lowes a few years ago.

I'm not one to beg a store to take my money, so I picked up some product literature and left. A cabinet shop closer to my home carries some of the same brands so I'll take my business to them, even if they do charge more.

How can Lowes (and Home Depot) fix this customer service problem? Simply admit to themselves that they aren't in the service business. Like all big-box retailers, their strength is stocking a large variety of inventory on the shelves. Customers search through piles of goods to find what they really want. These stores are self-serve all the way ... and shouldn't be afraid to admit it.

But in the kitchen cabinet department, the stores aren't set up to be self-service. They supposedly offer design service and you have to order the cabinets for later delivery. Come on now; who's kidding who? No big box retailer with its cadre of minimum-wage-slave employees is going to provide that level of service. It's beyond them.

My suggestion is to create a self-service kitchen cabinet department. Stock "blank" cabinet cases (without doors) in a variety of shapes and sizes. Let the customer choose from 10 to 20 styles of doors, which should also be in stock. Make it all cash-and-carry. No delays, no broken promises of "service". IKEA already sells kitchens this way -- Lowes and Home Depot should follow suit.