Monday, October 11, 2004

Home Depot v. Lowe's

I got a late start, but finally went on another epic journey to town. This time only Hillsboro, about 2 hours away. My main quest was for plumbing supplies and more lumber. There are 3 Home Depots in the area, including the one I prefer on T-V highway in Hillsboro. There, along a natureless suburban collector road with strip malls on one side and light industrial and warehousing on the other, is a Home Depot and Lowe’s sharing the same former farmland. They have connected parking lots with a mere 100 feet of pavement separating the two behemoths.

I was once accosted in the parking lot by a shopper carrying a bag, who exclaimed, “this is great. Just go to one store and get a price and take it next door. They won’t be undersold, so they give you 10% off the price of the other guy.” Then he showed me some tool that he’d probably saved an extra $3.50 on.

I usually shop at Home Depot just because Lowe’s feels too expensive. At Home Depot everything is in a state of controlled chaos. It’s clear that the personnel have some other agenda than helping you. It seems to be the choice of others too, and there are always lines at the paint counter and the registers. Parking is more difficult and sometimes even getting a cart.

At Lowe’s even the most mundane electrical parts are stocked like a department store display case. It’s serene inside, well lit, and nicely organized. While I was there one employee was restacking 2x4s into an ever so neat arrangement. Everyone asks you if they can help you. Lowe’s must have plenipotentiary mystery shoppers who are empowered to fire people on the spot if they fail to acknowledge a customer.

Because I was shopping for bathroom and kitchen faucets, I checked out Lowe’s first. I spot checked the quality of their neatly displayed lumber and their prices. There fixtures display was impeccable and at eye level. I’m sure I was asked if I needed help 3 times just on my way in. I looked over several models and then went to Home Depot.

Home Depot was its predictable self. The lumber looked awful and was going to need a lot of picking over. The prices were within pennies of being the same. Their bathroom display was a mess. There racks were up high, making it impossible to actually touch most of the products. And Lowe’s seemed to have what I needed. I grabbed a couple of things that I could only get at HD, and left for Lowe’s.

My first stop was lumber. I passed by the line-less contractor checkout, staffed by a small Asian women who appeared to be looking for things to do. They had everything in good shape except they were down to their last gnarly 2x8x12s. I mentioned this to the young man staking 2x4s and within a few minutes the aisle was blocked off and a new block of lumber was forklifted into place and unwrapped.

I stood at the ABS plumbing fittings display for about an hour, drawing in hand, picking out pieces for my drain, waste, vent (DWV) system. But they had every single thing and every item was in the right bin. Something I’d never experienced at Home Depot.

When I went looking for a work light a quick question to an employee (who, by the way, promptly interrupted a conversation with another employee to attend to me) got not just directions but an escort to the right spot and a pointer to an alternative fluorescent model that was actually what I was looking for.

I made my way back to the contractor checkout with my two carts. I don’t think anyone had checked out at the contractor aisle since I’d entered the store. The Asian woman’s badge read, “Toshie.” Her fluency was not very good, but in the amiable, service-oriented way of the Japanese, she began to methodically scan my order. Her inexperience showed at once. Veteran and harried checkers at Home Depot often find one good tag for an item, lock onto it like a top gun pilot and squeeze the trigger repeatedly at that same tag until they reach the number of like items one is buying. Toshie was counting them up and then scanning one, walking back to the cash register and then checking to make sure that it had registered.

I was in no hurry and there was no line so I was more amused and bit in disbelief that Lowe’s would place such an inexperienced person on their contractor counter. And then again, what was an older Japanese woman doing working a cash register there anyway? A good story untold no doubt.

The bar codes on the ABS tubing proved entirely unscannable and the computer didn’t seem to able to generate a discount on the bulk items I’d purchased. Somewhat reluctantly, and at my urging, she called for help. A swarthy young man was there before the receiver hit the cradle. With a few short keystrokes he was able to determine that the discounts would only show at the end. Then he patiently read off the numbers for the pipes. We were back in business.

Then it came to count a whole shopping cart load of plumbing connectors. I shoveled them from one cart into another as Toshie scanned them.

“Toshie-san wa Nihon-jin des ka?” I asked using the few words of Japanese I know.

Astonished at first, “Hai,” she replied. “You speak Japanese?”

“Skoshi Nihongo o hanashte imase,” I rattled off the canned expression. “I worked for Mitsubishi-denki for awhile.”

The black plastic parts continued to race by interrupted only by the confirming beep of the scanner.

“Oh, Mitsubishi-denki. Big company.” After a pause. “So many pieces?”

“I’m building a house.”

The basket was emptied and I was finally ready to pay and go.

“Domo arigato.” I said.

“Do itashimashte.” She replied.

I loaded up my rig and drove off into the sunset.

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