Home Depot reminds us why store-centric will be the death of retailers

Customer-centric retail is not a buzzphrase. It's the only path to survival.

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Credit: flickr/Mike Mozart

As we start the sprint to this year's holiday shopping season, I had hoped to start to see the disappearance of the store-centric mentality that has hurt so much of retail for years. This is best illustrated by complaints — from the likes of Target, Walmart and Home Depot — that they are being victimized by showrooming with Amazon. It was a bogus argument from the start.

I mention this disheartening thought because I just tried — unsuccessfully — to give money to Home Depot, only to have Home Depot's store-centric — not even chain-store-centric but individual store-centric — mentality drove me into the waiting HTML arms of Amazon. This time, I really was determined to buy the item from Home Depot, but Home Depot's suicidal store-centric policies defeated me.

And now, my tale. This weekend, I needed a new doorbell chime. (Who knew that they don't last forever?) It had very precise specs for a digital doorbell. Because I was working with a contractor from Home Depot, I wanted to get the chime from Home Depot. Best of all, there are several Home Depots near me, and the item is carried by the chain.

In researching the product, I found that Amazon offered it for a few dollars less than Home Depot (and, as a Prime Member, I would get free shipping). Still, I wanted to get it from Home Depot. This was Home Depot's sale to lose — and it managed to do exactly that.

I quickly found the item on the Home Depot website. Even better, the page volunteered that this product was in stock in more than 200 stores. So far, so good. The site, bizarrely, had set as my local Home Depot store a location that was quite far from me. If I had never visited Home Depot's site, this would be excusable, because using IP address to guess location is far from precise. The reality, though, is that I have made multiple buy-online-pickup-in-store purchases from Home Depot, and I routinely have to change my "local store" to the store actually closest. Ever heard of cookies, Home Depot?

But this a minor matter. I changed to my actual local store and proceeded to check availability. None. Oh, well. It was a Sunday and I had some time. I would drive to a different Home Depot. I asked the site for the next closest. No stock. OK, how about the third closest? No stock. I went through six stores — none of them had stock, but the site kept bragging that it was in stock in more than 200 stores.

Instead of forcing me through this sadistic guessing game, why didn't the site simply let me see the nearest stores where the item actually is in stock? It's certainly not because Home Depot's e-commerce team never thought of this. It's because Home Depot is not merely being store-centric, but  focusing on individual stores. The managers at specific stores want to tell you if a desired item is there. But if it's not, they'd rather sell you something similar. They would much prefer that than sending you to another store manager's turf, where you may also make a lot of other purchases. A Home Depot executive once told me how customer-centric the chain now is. He must have been sarcastic.

After all this, I toyed with having it shipped, but the shipping from HomeDepot.com took far longer than Amazon and it cost more. I then went back to Amazon, with its lower price and free shipping, which said that it would have it to me by the next morning.

I truly started out this chime-time aggressively planning on giving my money to Home Depot. This was not a sale that Amazon won. It was a sale that Home Depot went out of its way to lose.

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