Two top companies are competing for your home improvement dollar. Home Depot, the largest home improvement company, and Lowe's, the second largest. How do you choose who to give your hard earned money to...or do you ignore the big box stores altogether, and support the 'little guy'? My review of Lowe's and Home Depot follows, in the hopes of making your decision easier.
Home Improvement Stores...aren't they all the same?
At first glance, these two leading home-improvement and home-repair powerhouses seem to be the same, but delving deeper we find that there are, indeed, some differences btween the two. Some are significant, and some less so, but differences they are, and it is good for the consumer to know them.
The History Of Lowe's
From modest beginnings in 1946 as a small hardware store in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Lowe's has grown to be the 2nd largest home improvement retailer in all of the 50 states, and 7th in the world.
Mr. H. Carl Buchan bought out his partner/brother-in-law, James Lowe, with a vision of an entire chain of stores that would fill the needs of professional builders and contractors. Savvy enough to predict the housing boom that followed World War II., Carl began to focus primarily on building materials (especially items that were, at the time, difficult to find) and appliances. By dealing directly with product manufacturers, rather than buying from wholesalers, he was able to keep his prices low, winning the loyal repeat business of contractors and other professional builders as the bulk of Lowe's business, while still serving the 'everyday' customer.
In 1961, the company began to trade publicly, and in 1979 became one of the multitude of businesses trading on the New York Stock Exchange. During the 1950's-1970's, the building rage continued, helping Lowes to grow larger, and more profitable By 1982, Lowes was selling over one billion dollars per year, with a profit of approximately $25 million. Around this time, Lowes started to reach out more and more to the typical homeowner who wished to repair, or raise the value of, their homes and property.
Through remodeling it's existing locations to be larger, and building new locations with expansion in mind, Lowes prepared to 'own the market' that sold to both professional contractors, and D.I.Y.ers. In 1994 the modern day Lowes that we are familiar with today became the new model for consumer building, hardware, and appliance sales. Currently, Lowes averages a new store opening each week or so, and has expanded the business into Canada and Mexico.
With over 40,000 different items on offer in their brick and mortar stores, and a nearly infinite array of choices online, Lowes sells virtually every product a builder or homeowner would need.
Lowes aims to always maintain a commitment to supplying the best products and service available, at the lowest prices, while maintaining an excellent level of cutomer service.
The History of The Home Depot
The Home Depot is still in it's infancy, as compared to Lowe's. The company's founders, Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus, had the idea of providing a location that would provide the typical D.I.Y.er with both the products, and the guidance, to do their own home improvements and repairs. They teamed with Pat Farrah, a well-known merchandising authority, and Ken Langhorn, an investment banker, to open two stores in Atlanta, Georgia on June 22nd, 1979.
Going with the 'warehouse' theme for their stores, they initially offered more than 25,000 different products and stacked empty boxes in the overheads to give the impression of an even more extensive collection.
The "You can do it, we can help" philosophy was carried throughout the company by training employees to share expertise and 'how-to' information with customers, even having 'clinics' for customers on everything from tiling a floor or changing a faucet to caulking windows and doors for winter fuel savings. Currently, customers are able to sign up online for their choice of numerous free classes at any Home Depot. This whole concept was revolutionary in the industry, and instrumental in the growth of the company.
Having gone public on NASDAQ in 1981 as the fastest growing retailer in U.S. history, Home Depot moved on to the New York Stock Exhange in 1984. 1989 saw the opening of the 100th Home Depot store, and in 1994 they expanded the business to Canada, then to Mexico in 2001. In 2006, The Home Depot acquired the 12-location chain store 'The Home Way' in China, and have since closed 7 of the locations due to lack of business.
The problem in China, says Home Depot, is that the Chinese are not a culture of D.I.Y.ers. However, as Beijing's Qui Hontao stated,
" I've been to Home Depot, but I wasn't impressed. It's an American brand, and I went there expecting new and unique American products. Most of what Home Depot sells is stuff made in China. Who cares about that", he says, rolling his eyes. He can buy that anywhere.
Undaunted, Home Depot is still convinced that if they could get the right marketing strategy in China, they could still be successful there. Having also spread into Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, Home Depot has become the largest home improvement retailer, beating out even Lowes stellar performance. They are the fourth largest retailer in the entire U.S.
So What's the Difference?
Even knowing the wildly different histories of both Lowe's and Home Depot, the average consumer is still left with a 'so what?'. What is the difference? What would prompt a shopper to choose one over the other, with so many similarities in their product offerings? Below I list traits for each, and then summarize.
- Lowes's wins hands down on ease of finding employees to help: Although this factor differs from one area or store to another, the overwhelming majority of reviews available online indicate that it is easier to find help and to find products at Lowe's. This may be partially because of the wider aisles, and more and larger signage, but many attribute this to Lowe's additional 38 years in business, and the accompanying experience.
- Lowe's has many more appliance vendors, thus much more choice, than Home Depot.Next day appliance delivery is the norm on in-stock appliances at Lowes, and almost never available at Home Depot.
- Lowe's has the largest selection of in-stock appliances in the U.S., and Home Depot one of the smallest.
- Lowe's has been geared to appeal to the more visual shopper (traditionally women), and therefore there are more decor choices available at Lowe's, with generally more attractive displays than Home Depot.
- Lowe's offers an across the board discount of 5% on every purchase made with the Lowe's Consumer credit card, and often has 6 months same-as-cash purchase options. The Home Depot does not offer discounts, even to commercial customers.
- Twice a month Lowes has Build and Grow workshops where kids receive safety goggles, apron, patches, and a cool project to do.
The Home Depot
- The Home Depot carries a much larger selection of flooring, glass backsplash tile, and toilets than Lowe's., although Lowe's actually has more available products overall. If you are remodeling a bathroom or kitchen, including floors and backsplash, your best bet will probably be Home Depot for their range of choices.
- Home Depot always offers consumer credit that allows no interest within 6 months with any purchase over $299.00
- Tool rental is an option at the majority of Home Depot stores. Lowes has no such service.
- Home Depot's credit is a Citibank product, while Lowes is issued by G.E. Capital Retail (some prefer the giant Citigroup as being better known for financial products)
- Home Depot offers D.I.Y. clinics every weekend (Lowes has no such offering, but their employees are happy to show you on the spot, if you request help)
- Home Depot has a 'kids workshop' once per month, where parents can bring their children to share the experience of building a birdhouse, a memory box, tool caddy, for instance. The workshop and materials are always free and the kids get to take home their project, and a mini-apron, a kid-sized Home Depot apron identical to the ones the employees wear.
Sooooo....how do you decide?
In general, The Home Depot and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse are very similar on pricing. That is to say, on a project that requires many different items, you will see very little difference on your bottom line. If you price each item separately, however, you will find that prices vary widely, and money can be saved by choosing the lower priced items from each store. It seems there is not a major difference in pricing when all things are considered.
Customer service at Lowe's is generally given higher marks that than The Home Depot. Customers most often sited employee experience as being the main factor here, with Lowe's employees displaying a greater knowledge base than those at The Home Depot. For the budding D.I.Y.er, this can make the difference between many happy D.I.Y. experiences over the years, and complete frustration and disappointment.
The range of available products at Lowe's versus selection at the Home Depot is slightly larger, but each store has it's own limited selection items. For example, there are many more toilets available from Home Depot than Lowe's, but if a towel bar, electric range, or single-hung window (to name a few) is on your shopping list, head on out to Lowe's for a better selection than you will find at Home Depot.
Lowes has been in business for 38 years longer than the Home Depot, making them more established and experienced in their field. Both have had a good track record as far as yearly profit and loss, and lawsuits regarding employee discrimination, or customer issues run about the same for both firms (bad). Over the years, both companies have had issues with these, especially the area of discrimination. Neither company has a stated policy of discrimination (the opposite, in fact), but at a store or district/regional level, where management is the determining factor, there continue to be major discrimination issues to deal with. Bad management, cutting corners financially, and politics (favoritism) are at the root of the majority of cases.
Employees (both current, and 'previously-employed-by') at Lowe's and Home Depot gave both good and bad reviews. The most common complaint was discrimination, followed by disrespect and favoritism on the part of management. Gender-based sexual discrimination came in first, followed closely by age discrimination, and racial discrimination. Age and sex discrimination were more often reported than racial discrimination, especially at The Home Depot, but unfortunately,all these ugly things still exist at both companies.
My personal recommendation? Between the two, I tend to prefer Lowe's (perhaps because I am a 'visual shopper'/woman?), but I really prefer to frequent the smaller neighborhood hardware stores, both to support local business, and for the advantages a smaller store offers. Personal service, product knowledge, and project advice are all reliable in my favorite little stores, and I now find that there is very little reason to visit the giants. Now that I am a regular customer in the smaller stores, the employees know to get in touch with me when particular promos arise, and always give me the 'last weeks' or 'next weeks' sale prices, if they apply to my purchase. Lowes and Home Depot definitely won't do that, I have asked numerous times. If I needed a large amount of lumber or tile, for instance, I might check with the big guys, but for most needs, the little guys suit me much better.
References used during the writing of this article: