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Lowe's vs. Home Depot: Building to a backyard brawl

For years, the two do-it-yourself giants avoided each other as they moved into the region. Not anymore.

Friday, April 21, 2000

By Teresa F. Lindeman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Chuck Bender laughed when asked if he's looking to put a new Busy Beaver Building Center in Cranberry, one of the region's hottest development hubs.

  Cranberry store manager Thomas Marshall tells Lowe's new employees that they always must carry three things: a roll of tape, a knife and a yellow list of important things to remember. (Peter Osyf, Post-Gazette)

"Seems to be plenty of people there already," said the president of the Harmarville-based chain of home improvement centers.

Indeed. Yesterday, Home Depot, the nation's No. 1 retailer of nuts and bolts and other stuff for houses, held its grand opening in an orange-appointed structure off Route 19 in Cranberry.

Tomorrow, Lowe's, the nation's No. 2 retailer of nuts and bolts, etc., will welcome its first shoppers to a blue-and-red building about a mile away. Just take a left at the light onto Route 228.

Earlier this week, the two do-it-yourself hardware chains simultaneously hosted dozens of celebrating employees at pre-opening festivities at their newest local stores.

A local showdown between the two giants has been building for some time. Home Depot and Lowe's both arrived in southwestern Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s and have expanded to the point they're increasingly stepping on each other toes.

And, increasingly, the two giants face the challenge of convincing local customers that they aren't exactly the same -- just mammoth warehouses packed to the rafters with lumber and plumbing fixtures.

    Online map: Home Depot, Lowe’s locations


"We are often asked, 'Why do we need to put in a Home Depot when there's a Lowe's?', " said John Simley, spokesman for Home Depot. "They are different stores and they appeal to different people."

Thomas Marshall, manager of Lowe's new Cranberry store, agreed.

He has never opened a store at the exact same time as Home Depot before, but he has competed with the other guys directly. "To me it really doesn't matter, because we are different."

A few years ago, the two were more concerned with gaining a foothold in southwestern Pennsylvania than taking on each other in the local market.

Their choices of locations reflected their histories. Lowe's started out in rural North Carolina and had a tradition of focusing on those kind of communities. Atlanta-based Home Depot tended to attack metropolitan areas head-on.

In September 1996, Home Depot opened its first three stores here -- all in Allegheny County and all on the same day.

Lowe's kept to the fringes of the metro area. Butler, Indiana and Uniontown got stores in 1995, followed by Johnstown and Belle Vernon a year later.

Smaller competitors felt the pressure.

The two chains are cited as one reason Hechinger and Builders Square pulled out of the region, even before the stores' owners gave up on the business entirely. And Busy Beaver shut down some of its stores in response to their arrival in the neighborhood, hoarding its resources to build new locations elsewhere.

The unofficial -- and officials say unplanned -- detente between the two giants ended last year.

Home Depot began making incursions into the smaller outlying markets, putting stores in South Strabane, Greensburg and Johnstown.

Just before Christmas, Lowe's returned the favor with a location at the Waterfront project in Homestead. Robinson and Monroeville sites are in the plans in the next year or so. Both companies have said they'd like to be in the Route 8 corridor.

They have competed successfully in other markets around the country, and both sides say the experience keeps them on their toes. If nothing else, they have to keep marketing themselves so consumers will choose them over the competition.

A media tracking service estimates Home Depot accounted for 29 percent of the region's home improvement ad spending last year, with Lowe's at almost 27 percent. Between them, they spent at least $1.9 million on local marketing, according to VoiceTrak Inc., an Arizona-based market research firm that surveys media outlets.

In third place was 84 Lumber, the Washington County-based chain that actually has more stores in this area than either of the industry leaders. 84 Lumber spent at least $530,000 on marketing in the region, accounting for 10 percent of the ad dollars reported.

84 Lumber has differentiated itself by focusing on the professional market. Do-it-yourselfers are welcome, but between 60 percent and 80 percent of the chain's business comes from contractors.

The differences between Home Depot and Lowe's are more subtle.

The average Home Depot store sprawls across 116,000 square feet.

That's big, but Lowe's is even bigger, averaging 150,000 square feet with extra bright, wide aisles that it believes better attracts customers.

Officials directly aim for the female customer by keeping those aisles neat and setting shelves at the perfect height for the 5-foot-4-inch customer.

Lowe's claims to be the third largest seller of appliances such as ovens, refrigerators and washing machines in the country. But Home Depot earlier this year announced it would begin selling them, too.

Home Depot has a reputation in the industry for offering good service, packing its stores very full and selling things at low prices. Lowe's is battling back with a guarantee to beat any competitor's price by 10 percent.

"They're both outstanding competitors," said Busy Beaver's Bender.

Neither 84 Lumber nor Busy Beaver has given up under the onslaught.

Busy Beaver's strategy has been to acknowledge the battles it can't win and move on. "We've kind of gone with the flow," said Bender. "We've made the tough decisions."

The smaller chain continues to seek out places to grow. New stores this year in Mount Pleasant, New Castle and Venango County will boost the Busy Beaver store count to 14.

84 Lumber last year introduced a new larger store format and has announced plans to open 50 new stores in each of the next three years, pushing its total count to more than 500 nationwide.

In addition, the chain's prototype interactive design store in McMurray -- Maggie's Building Solutions Showroom, named after founder Joe Hardy's daughter -- could serve as a new model for future expansion.

The company last year posted record sales of $1.8 billion. By comparison, Lowe's reported $15.91 billion in sales in 584 stores.

Home Depot beat everyone with $38.4 billion through more than 930 locations. "We open a new store every 27 hours," said Simley.

The big guys may have differences, but they also have some uncanny similarities. It's not just the apron uniforms and the how-to classes.

Every day at store meetings all over the country, Lowe's and Home Depot employees clap and yell. Someone sends them back into the fray by chanting that old cheer that goes something like this, "Give me an __, give me an __."

The cheer leaders do, of course, spell out different names.

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