Renovation retail: The taming of the screw

On any given evening, you will find my wife watching at least one home improvement show. Reality TV seems to have found the perfect bedfellow in home makeover shows. Whether we are talking about Anna Simone or Glen Peloso or Steve and Chris, suddenly there are designer people in my home every day using my wife as a medium to repeatedly deliver the same message: This House Sucks!

On any given evening, you will find my wife watching at least one home improvement show. Reality TV seems to have found the perfect bedfellow in home makeover shows. Whether we are talking about Anna Simone or Glen Peloso or Steve and Chris, suddenly there are designer people in my home every day using my wife as a medium to repeatedly deliver the same message: This House Sucks!

She is apparently not alone. According to a recent survey conducted by U.K.-HQ’d Synovate, 27% (or 3.5 million) of Canadian households will be renovating or remodeling in 2007. That represents $12 billion at retail for all types of home improvement projects, with bathrooms and kitchens at the top of the list.

And where will they spend that money? Primarily two stores, with a third on the way later this year: Home Depot, Rona, and soon, Lowe’s. So when the TV program is over and the kitchen fantasy is actively building in my wife’s imagination, we head out to Home Depot and Rona, just to ‘look at stuff.’

Rona positions itself as the ‘Canadian how-to people.’ Home Depot says: ‘You can do it. We can help.’ Lowe’s says: ‘Let’s build something together.’ To me, this all sounds pretty much the same, except one is Canadian. So there really is only one thing left to differentiate them. You guessed it – experience.

Rona’s current TV spots turn Do-It-Yourself into Buy-It-Yourself, wherein a young couple see a bathroom reno display and like it so much that they fold the bathroom into a shipping crate and roll it out of the store. This little piece of hyperbole reads like a ‘See ya, raise ya’ jab in the kitchen and bath display wars with Home Depot, in which the two duke it out for the attention of people like my wife.

Therein lies the secret behind the big box reno retail business. It’s becoming a woman’s world. And what a brilliant idea that is. Why would you target the weekend do-it-yourself male who might want to come in and play with the power tools when it’s his wife who is at home hatching a plot to tear the kitchen apart and build a new one? You’re going to follow the money.

As retail consultant Paco Underhill has written: ‘The retail hardware industry has gone from an ‘Erector set’ mentality to a ‘Let’s play house’ approach.’ So the kitchen and bath sections are designed for women. Men can go to the lumber section and the Tool Zone. They like to get in and out quickly, so these areas are functional and mechanical. But the model kitchens and bathrooms are for shopping, which is something women do a lot better. And many of them are managed by design-savvy women, who, as consultant Tom Peters loves to point out, are much better salespeople than men. They listen. And that is important when you are making such a high-involvement purchase.

So what, if anything, sets these brands apart? Rona and Home Depot follow very similar formulas. Warehouse space, tall industrial-strength shelving, concrete floors. Experienced and knowledgeable salespeople. Everything from the tools to the finished product, depending on your interest and ability.

Both have very sticky websites, with all kinds of features to feed the kitchen or bathroom fantasy. Rona’s Virtual Decorator allows you to take a digital photo of your room and drop it into an application that will change the colours and finishes to suit your taste. Home Depot’s online catalogue (dubbed the DreamBook) will automatically pop up a price and product description for anything that you roll over in the photographs.

Both these retailers still have builders and do-it-yourselfers as customers. As a would-be DIYer, my own experience is that help at Rona seems a little more accessible, but both employ experienced tradespeople. It’s just that they appear to be spending more of their money these days on providing women with the inspiration and the tools they need to design, plan and budget their dreams. Because you know their husbands will never get around to it.

One thing that sets Home Depot apart is its Eco Options program, an environmentally savvy approach to product selection that has been so successful in Canada that it is now rolling out in the U.S. As important and laudable as that may be to the community, will it sustain sufficient differentiation?

Lowe’s’ challenge will be to steal a slice of the market away from the incumbents. The fact is that the shift in interest towards boomer women was Lowe’s’ idea in the first place. Based on the fact that Lowe’s also has a robust CSR strategy and a less industrial store environment, which appeals to women, it may just break the experience stalemate.

Will Novosedlik is partner at Toronto-based Chemistry, a brand collaborative which links strategy to communication, organizational performance and customer experience. He can be reached at will@chemistrycorp.com.