I appologize in advanced for this rant, but knowledge is power. While I spend a majority of my earnings and life at stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot it never ceases to amaze me at the recommendations and advice I have been given or have overheard. Two recent examples come to mind; both from coworkers.
In one case a guy sent his wife to buy a gallon of Kitchen and Bath paint for his bath remodeling project. However, she talked to the employee at the paint counter and was guaranteed that there was no such thing as kitchen and bath paint, and he had been a painter for over 15 years. Now I don’t know if that painting included a brown paper bag and spray paint or not, but a quick search brought up several different brands of kitchen and bath paints that are mold and mildew resistant.
The other example happened very recently and is what brought about this little PSA. My other coworker wanted to replace the missing trim pieces that hide the jack screws of her front porch supports. The original ones were made of 1×4 that were untreated and rotted away quickly. After explaining her situation to someone she believed to be the manager of the lumber department, she was shown two products:
1) Vinyl decking material at $20 apiece and
2) A pre-primed piece of MDF (medium density fiberboard, basically dust and resin pressed together).
These were presented as her only options (never considering to mention cedar or treated pine as viable option). Now she explained specifically that this was an exterior project and not knowing the difference and not wanting to spend $20 on one board she bought the MDF. To make things worse the tag even said for interior use only!!!
Now I’m hoping that these were just simple cases of incompetence and not some “wow I can try and pull a fast one on this lady.” But it brings up an important issue that sometimes occurs with big chain stores (and other stores for that matter): a lack of experience with a little unwillingness to ask someone knowledgeable thrown in for kicks and giggles. Get ready for a shock statement: Lowe’s and Home Depot are at the end of the day a retail store, akin to Wal-Mart and Costco, who just happen to sell hardware goods. Therefore, they are often staffed by retailers who know their stock and not their trade. However, there are things you can do to prevent yourself from be had by a professional know nothing.
One option is to shop at smaller, more local and specialized hardware and supply stores. They tend to have much smaller stock but often know the ins and outs of that stock. Plus, more often than not, these stores are family run or have experienced former tradesmen or at least hobbyists. And in these times of bigger and better, these stores generally want the sales more and are more apt to give you the attention you need and help you with the small details that you might overlook.
If you are shopping at a big box store, ask for a second opinion and read the labels. My coworker wouldn’t have had to return the MDF board if she had read the sticker. If she had asked another associate or random lumber buyer she may have also been able to glean the proper information and bought the correct board.
Finally and most importantly, be an informed citizen. This goes well outside the bounds of buying hardware (I swear I will lecture the next person who says that they can’t vote for someone because they don’t like their hair or because Britney Spears said she didn’t like them). Websites like Home Fixated, HGTV, DIY, Skil, and so on have deeply insightful, brilliant and sometimes hilariously in-tune content to help you with your project. You never have to be an expert at anything as long as you take the time to ask an expert. Not to mention that YouTube has a gazillion videos on every DIY project you can begin to imagine. Just don’t watch the diet Pepsi and Mentos video when you’re trying to learn how to do crown molding.
Let me also clarify, that Home Depot, Lowes and other big box stores do also have employees that are current or former tradespeople that are experts in their fields. The point of this article is to suggest that you don’t assume they’re all pros. In this fast-paced world we live in, information is at the tip of our fingers anywhere we go and still sometimes we avoid asking the right questions or at least googling it from our iPhones or just checking the apps. Maybe next time it will be caveat venditor (seller beware).
11 thoughts on “Caveat Emptor and Big Box Stores – Knowledge is Power”
I work near a college town and the local stores hire college students. I hope they don’t believe half of what they tell the customers “Oh yes, that spider will eat wasps”. YIKES!!!
I’ve had good and bad experiences at both Lowes and Home Depot. Fortunately, there is a lot of info available on the internet (especially here) which lets you sort out the two.
In today’s economy we need to educate ourselves and like Bob, Maggie and Tom have taken the time to point others in the right direction after the sales clerk has walked away.
I would have to agree with Tom here – the only reason I am a regular at Lowes and HD is because the plumbing supply store, the lumberyard and the electrical supply place are all closed by 5pm when I get out of work. A few might be open on Saturdays from 8-12 but for the most part these places cater to the tradesmen who are working 7am to 4pm and have no interest in selling to regular homeowners. I think this is a sad development over the past few years but lets be honest, how many regular people care enough to find real supply houses for their tools and building materials, and how many would just “call the man” to install a ceiling fan?
As far as the big box stores go I think Paul nailed it – the companies would love for licensed electricians to work there for retail pay but that doesn’t usually happen. I was at a store this week and I saw the usual lady looking at screwdrivers with a puzzled look. She had two employees looking at her GPS unit trying to find a screwdriver to open it up. On my way past them I took a look and told them it was a Torx 6 or 8 and pointed to the shelf where the correct set was located, which I knew because I bought one last year. I think the home stores are kinda like buying a house – everyone should take someone along who knows what they are doing because you never know what you might find.
Great discussion here everyone! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with big-box retail.
I’ve been fortunate to find both good electricians and plumbers at Home Depot. The electrician walked me through some rather complicated replacements of light fixtures that weren’t originally installed to code, over several visits and taking close looks at pictures I’d taken on my cellphone. But you do have to look for these experts, because there are probably more people working the aisles who don’t have any expertise. I’ve also taken the libery of offering information to people who seem to be puzzling over products in the painting aisle (“I have a lot of experience using XYZ–could I possibly help you?”)–although I’m not a professional painter, I’ve got over 40 years experience from buying fixer-upper houses and have learned LOTS over the years (mostly the hard way!). In nearly every instance, the people I’ve offered information to seem to be appreciative of the advice offered. It’s nice to be able to help out folks.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Maggie, and for providing a friendly public service of your own at the big box stores!
Leroy, I agree with you 100%. Today’s retail employees are first there to make money for the store and second to get you to apply for a credit card.
Once you find an expert at Lowes, Home Depot or Sears get their schedule and make a point of shopping when they are around.
It’s fairly easy to find and expert at Sears. The Blue Crews (Tools, Lawn & Garden, Appliances, Electronics, etc) wear blue shirts. These people are highly trained in their products and many do have professional experience. The rest of the staff (clerks, stockroom, etc.) at the stores wear black. If you want the best answer don’t go to the customer service counter, find a person in a blue shirt.
Good to know (about the Blue Crew) Paul. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
the only reason i shop at home despot is if i need something after 6pm, on sunday, or it’ll be a special order that’ll take too long. my local lumber yard (3 minutes from the house, and 8 minutes from downtown minneapolis) is uniformly cheaper (by about 20-30%) and has significantly greater lumber selection. (and they’re a full custom millwork shop) no, they don’t have color changing joint compound, but the despot often is out anyway.
family owned for almost a century with 3 current local generations working, or a big box where they can’t even tell me what isle hardware cloth is in so i can pay more for it?
if i need a one time use or a beater tool, i’ll hit harbor freight or menards as their store brand hand tools are (bizarrely) guaranteed for life, so i can pay next to nothing for something that if i need again in 5 years, i know i can replace with a new one.
Thanks for the comments Metis, Fong and Tom! Being an informed consumer and also having some local expertise to rely on are solid strategies!
The only thing worse than someone who doesn’t know the right answer is someone who’s wrong but convinced that know the right answer. Having worked in retail myself, I’ve seen it first hand from both sides usually with tragic (yet comical) results. As mentioned in the post (and preached by Mike Holmes), the best strategy is to educate yourself as much as possible with reputable sources. The less you depend on questionable expertise, the better off you’ll be. An apron doesn’t make someone an expert, especially the ones with a lot of flair.
I am blessed to have a good local hardware store, and grew up going to one in my hometown. Aside from selection (better for some things, worse for others) my only gripe is store hours. My local shop closes at 5:30 most days and 2 on Sundays. The staff are very knowledgeable, and if they don’t know the answer they will find someone who does.
There are the smart people at the big boxes, but not many. I have got good advice before. My local HD has a really good plumbing person who has been really helpful. Sadly they aren’t all like that. On occasion I have overheard similar bad advice in a big box. When possible I have made efforts to give my own advice to other customers after hearing a salesperson give wrong information.
I do like the bit of advice about asking other customers. I have asked and been asked questions. It’s what we did before youtube. In the wasteland that big boxes can be we have to stick together!