Do closures at Lowe’s spell the end of the DIY era?

From the C-Suite newsletter: Experts weigh in on the home improvement retailer's decision to shutter 34 stores.
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Last week, when Lowe’s announced it would shutter 34 stores early next year, including 26 Rona locations, the decision was met with “a bit more of a visceral reaction than what we usually get,” says Carl Boutet, chief retail strategist at StudioRX. After all, it was only last November that the home improvement retailer closed 31 locations.

Emotions run higher when the impacted firm is a home-grown Quebec business, Boutet says, so U.S-based Lowe’s has needed to contend not only with the economics and brand perception consequences of its decision, but also the political fallout of its 2016 acquisition of Quebec-based Rona.

Some analysts predicted closures soon after Rona agreed to be bought by the world’s second-largest home improvement chain, behind Home Depot. But Eric Matusiak, national retail leader at BDO Canada, believes the closures speak more to the impact the next-gen consumer is having on big box retailers in the home hardware space.

“Most people will probably rationalize today’s announcement by Lowe’s Canada as another chapter in a long right-sizing story after the takeover of Rona a few years ago,” he recently wrote on LinkedIn. “I’ll put forward an alternate view: this could be a signal that the DIY era is coming to an end.”

Matusiak, who notes his opinion is based on personal observation and secondary research, added in the post that millennials and Gen Z shoppers are “exhibiting lifestyles and behaviours that are unfavourable to big box hardware stores.”

In a follow-up interview, he said he considers 1994 a defining year in the rise of DIY culture in Canada. It was that year when Home Depot entered Canada, bringing a new big-box concept to Canadians, and also the year HGTV launched, drawing attention to the power of home renovations and turning handy men and women into celebrities.

Now, twenty-five years later, Matusiak says the big box store targeting customers with decent-sized homes and lumber-hauling vehicles are simply not aligned to the next generation, who are living in condos or multi-family dwellings, cutting back on material possessions, and feeling more empowered by the DIFM (“do it for me”) movement than DIY.

“If you’re not as interested in consuming as many products and not interested in buying as many things and having a smaller environmental footprint,” Matusiak says, “you’re not going to need to go to these big stores, because you just don’t have as much house to take care of.”

Boutet notes that Lowe’s has previously experimented with VR in a bid to capture the attention of younger shoppers. Back in 2014, it began piloting The Holoroom, a holographic room enabling customers to test out products and room designs pre-purchase. “They’ve known for a while that there might be some challenges in addressing the younger demographic, which I suspect has always somewhat been the case,” Boutet says.

While Matusiak sees a growing lack of interest in DIY as a major source of Lowe’s (and other hardware stores’) woes, both Boutet and Kelly Askew, managing director of retail at Accenture Strategy, say that probably has an impact, but not a significant one.

As a whole, the triggers of DIY activity remain relatively stable. Askew notes that there haven’t been any significant breakthroughs in the design or reliability of dwellings, while style trends and tastes continue to change, and homes continue to sell. “There’s probably small bits of truth to [Matusiak’s theory],” he says, “but it’s probably an oversimplification.”

Askew suggests acquisitions naturally involve a degree of “house cleaning” in the form of eliminating overlap between networks and reevaluating store sales to maximize network-wide performance. Boutet agrees. “In reality, there are a bunch of things happening,” he says. “But if you had to point to one thing, it’s that these [closing] stores are underperforming.”

The pair also agree that channel dispersion is partly responsible, as online sales from traditional DIY retailers on everything from light bulbs to screwdrivers move to more general merchants, like Walmart and Amazon, where people are already doing other kinds of ecommerce shopping.

Then there’s the fact that individuals are, generally speaking, becoming less comfortable with traditional domestic skills – which is impacting a range of categories, from food to automotive, according to Askew. Instead, the time-strapped generation is leveraging local businesses and the app economy to accomplish those tasks around the house. IKEA, for instance, has been working with TaskRabbit on furniture assembly, giving customers the option of getting someone else to do the work.

For the Lowe’s of the world, success in the long-term will mean figuring out how to capture not only contractors and the DIY-inclined, but also more casual DIFM-type customers, according to both Askew and Matusiak. People with a passion or talent in the home improvement space may just be willing to offer their services, Uber-style, to those who can’t or are simply less interested in doing it themselves.

Matusiak is also of the opinion that retailers in the space should embrace social commerce, aim to improve the omnichannel experience for customers – through, for example, offering in-store recommendations, reviews or how-to videos through an app – or explore subscription-based offerings, which have gained traction with younger shoppers. Given the category is largely project-based, such a model could involve offering a fee-based program that comes with a monthly amount to spend in-store or online, while giving those customers faster or free delivery.