Why brick-and-mortar stores are dying

My snow-blower, like every other snow-blower, is useless without shear bolts/pins. I bought it from Home Depot three years ago. Home Depot still sells them. I need some spares (I’m down to my last set), so I checked the Home Depot website to ensure they were in-stock in the Assembly Square store near my home.

Bingo — Model # 73203900, “Item can be picked up in store“. Item price is $6.49/package (3 in each package).

Wrong. I went to the store, only to find that the store has just two varieties on their shelves — neither is the right size, neither will fit my model, and they were unable to locate the very same page I found on their website. They were able to take my money so that I can “order online, ship to store.”

I just ordered three units through Amazon. They will arrive Friday, to my home, and they cost $4.85 each.

My learning (and this is not the first time for Home Depot)? Don’t shop there. The entire point of operating a brick-and-mortar outlet is so that I can pick up the things I need when I need them. Websites that lie about availability do far more harm than just saying “out of stock”. Forcing me to order goods to be shipped to their store colossally misses the point of internet shopping. It is yet another example of pushing onto the customer services that the store should rightfully do (in this case, inventory management).

Charging sales tax on my online purchase has NO IMPACT on my decision to buy these from Amazon. I predict that in 6-12 months, we will learn that Home Depot is closing stores (like Circuit City and Barnes & Noble), along with much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how unfair and harmful the “internet” is.

That whining is wrong. Home Depot has lost a customer, for good, because of their own incompetence, dishonesty, and arrogance. They deserve to go the way of Circuit City.

Recommended by seamusromney.


18 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. It was your fault for assuming what you saw online was correct.

    Savvy buyers know that reading “available for pickup” or ” in stock” online has no relationship to what the store actually has in stock.

    You should have taken the extra step and called the store. When you talk to the employees, they will tell you that “online quantities are never correct.”

    Typically it has something to do with the fact they they are using two software systems and one is not updating the other.

    Could be worse, my $169 electric (plug-in) lawn mover from Home Depot stopped working one month after the two year warranty ran out. I did research and found out that model was dying at the same spot for everyone. I replaced it with a better model I got at Lowes.

    Still, I just spent $62 at lunch today at HD.

    Your issue is less an indictment of brick & mortar than Home Depot. When Apple started their stores everyone told them the B & M era was over and they were wasting their money. Didn’t turn out that way. Home Depot has some good stuff and some garbage. Typically it has the lowest prices, and often it is the only place to buy some things. I shop Ace Hardware as well because it’s easier and the products and service are better (when I need better).

    Home Depot is doing pretty well- the stock’s up 48% in the last 12 months. I don’t think the Internet has much impact on their business either way.

  2. You are more tolerant than me

    My fault for actually BELIEVING what their website says? You are more tolerant than me. Ironically enough, the in-store personnel went to the same website I posted above. If you click through the link, you’ll discover that “Item can be picked up in store” actually means — after you order it — that it can be picked up in the store “in 4 – 7 days plus 3 days for order processing” (that’s what the fine-print in the selected radio-button says in the image below).

    Home Depot is no worse than Lowes or Best Buy — each has similar disparities between what they say they have and what’s actually in the store.

    I shop at Tags Hardware (in Porter Square) whenever I can. I note that they (correctly) said right up front that they don’t carry shear bolts and suggested I try HD.

    I generally don’t see causal relationship between stock price and business health or performance. The market tends to price stock based on a comparison with expected performance. More than one struggling company has improved its financials by cutting stores and slashing payroll, and seen its market cap dramatically improve because the “gains” were greater than expected. More than one of those has subsequently died anyway.

    • More tolerant and less likely to make broad generalizations

      based on very little data.

      Why are you using a snow blower anyway? I shovel.

    • Best Buy

      My experience with Best Buy is that their web site clearly says “Ship to store” versus “Available Now”, the latter meaning it is actually in stock. I think this terminology removes the ambiguity and FWIW it has always gibed with what they tell me when I call.

      Regarding Barnes & Noble, always check the online price vs. the in-store price. A couple of Chrismases ago, I went to pick up a box set of movies at a store only to find that it was much more expensive than their own online price. The person at the store said that is standard practice. I ended up getting it elsewhere for cheaper than either of their prices.

      • Why bother?

        I agree that the Best Buy approach removes the ambiguity. But why would I bother to have an item shipped to a store that I have to then visit to pick up?

        It seems to me that a simple reality of buying mass-produced merchandise today is that the same item can be bought from multiple suppliers, both brick-and-mortar and online. It takes about as long to ship a title from the B&N warehouse to a local B&N store as from an Amazon warehouse to a home. So once the consumer has confirmed that it isn’t in stock in the store, why bother with that store at all?

        The larger point remains that in a world where a large variety of mass-produced items can be obtained from a large variety of online merchants, the only way a brick-and-mortar business will succeed is if it consistently provides a better experience to a buyer than its online competitors.

        That “better experience” might be convenience, knowledgeable staff, post-sales support, and so on. It almost surely will NOT be price (a merchant located outside the Boston metro area will almost certainly have lower overhead than a Boston area b&m merchant).

        I suggest that the kind of online trickery that we see in this Home Depot example (hiding actual availability until after a purchase decision, providing deceptive summaries, etc) is toxic to that “better experience” that is crucial to the sustainability of the brick-and-mortar outlet.

        • Why bother - to save on shipping

          One reason to bother picking something up in a store is that they usually won’t charge you shipping. Of course that is not an advantage if shipping is free for your item or if you have already paid for Amazon Prime and can get it through them.

          • Shipping?

            If you make $15 an hour (somewhat lower than the average for Boston), a 15 minute trip to the store wipes out your $4 shipping gain from not using Amazon, assuming the base prices are the same (and the online price is probably lower). No benefit there.

            • That's right, there isn't a benefit for everyone

              However, if you spend $4 worth of gas in 15 minutes, then you get really crappy mileage and if you make that little you may not even have a computer to buy stuff online. For that matter, you may not have a car. So this is a silly counterexample

              The fact is that there are plenty of people who drop by these big box stores often enough that would not find this to be an inconvenience. Contractors probably would rather drop by and pick something up than have something delivered to their home when they are not there.

              • He wasn't talking about burning $4 worth of gas

                He is talking about the value of the time wasted in going to the store. There is nothing “silly” about the comment. By the way, the HD round-trip takes me more like 45 minutes — my time is worth more than $5.33/hour.

                As far as I’m concerned, the fact remains that the website lies. When a “check availability” page says “Item can be picked up in store”, it implies that the item is there. When the same session reports “in 4 – 7 days plus 3 days for order processing” after adding the item to the shopping cart, it means that somebody decided to make the site lie.

                That isn’t a matter of an item be temporarily out of stock, or a mismatch between the actual inventory and the website. That is, instead, a website that is designed to lie — the clear objective is to get the mark into the store.

                “Bait and switch” has always been predatory. Using the internet to deliver the dishonest message doesn’t change its dishonesty.

                The point I’m trying to make here is that the internet greatly expands the competition. My experience with Amazon and Amazon-recommended merchants (there’s a reason why those “seller rating” figures are there) is far more positive than with HD. Traditional hardware stores like Tags and Masse’s prosper because they offer a superior customer experience.

                When HD crashes and burns, we will see “analysis” blaming “the internet”. The reality is that the internet only makes the bad things happening to a troubled merchant happen faster — it doesn’t cause them.

        • why bother?

          I agree that the Best Buy approach removes the ambiguity. But why would I bother to have an item shipped to a store that I have to then visit to pick up?

          For shear pins, I have no problem with the package being shipped to my house.

          A television? A computer? If you can’t be sure you’ll be home when it arrives? Maybe you are OK with that, but I’m not.

    • Truth be told

      Inventory isn’t reliable. Have you worked in retail? Unless it’s something with a price tag in the five figures, assume a +- of five items. Sometimes, believe it or not, it’s not the company’s fault. How many times does a customer pick something up, change his/her mind, and put it down wherever? For that matter, how many times has something from Amazon got held up by an inexplicable delay.

      Believe it or not, humans are involved with online retail as well. Things aren’t magically better because they’re far away. I don’t think the millenia-old approach to selling things is going away just because you couldn’t find the screw you wanted.

      sabutai   @   Tue 12 Feb 5:20 PM
      • Different problem

        I actually have worked in retail, a long time ago — I worked in a hobby shop, where most of what I did was to make sure that kits stayed in the right places on the right shelves.

        This isn’t a +/- five items problem, and I don’t think this is any kind of “millenia-old approach to selling things” (unless you mean the venerable practices of bait-and-switch, sell-em-what-you-have instead of what the customer needs, etc).

        The store has shelf space reserved for specific selection of accessories. The problem wasn’t that the bin for my snow-blower was empty, it was that there wasn’t even a bin for it, the sales people barely knew what a “shear bolt” was, and the service desk ended up at the same website I started on before I came in.

        Finally, I’m not talking about “magic”. I got my shipping confirmation message from Amazon within a few hours of placing my order, it is scheduled to arrive Thursday. I had a dramatically better experience with the online merchant — with no “magic” involved.

  3. Bother

    A couple of thoughts:

    Amazon is not always, or even most of the time, the cheapest place to buy any given item. After reading about their mistreatment of their warehouse workers, I try to buy elsewhere. Sometimes I pay a little more to do that. I’ve also had a couple of bad experiences basing purchases on Amazon descriptions that were erroneous.

    Lowe’s is a better place to shop than HD, but they both have strangely limited variety, for such big spaces. I wanted some oil-based primer, because the latex stuff I used on the outside trim of my house failed within a year, and neither Lowe’s nor HD had any. I found it at a local hardware store.

    False claims of availability and prices are common on the Web. I’ve had things reportedly shipped that the vendor didn’t actually have, which meant I had to start shopping all over again after losing several days. When spiders like Google Shopping make price comparisons of an item at different vendors, the prices are often wrong, for various reasons. Sometimes you need to be a member of the vendor’s “club” to get that low price. Sometimes Google is using a price from an expired sale. Sometimes the vendor never had the item in the first place. Generally, however, I buy stuff online because I can usually find exactly what I want and order it in less than the time it would take me to go to a store, which might not have it at all. Taxes aren’t going to change that.

  4. Snow blowers is an example of what is wrong with our trade policy

    Many of the snow blowers today are made in China, the frames are flimsy, thin metal, etc. Briggs and Stratton have engines made in China now. And for what purpose, so we can pay less, thus snow blowers have become a disposable item now. My USA made Craftsman snow blower is 40 years old, would never get rid of it because the new ones are not made as well.

    Obama said he wants more manufacturing in the USA, let’s incentivize what I consider large ticket items, to be built here, not in Mexico and China. Germany does this, let’s follow their model.

    Tom- I like your snow blower, appears to be made in the USA, one of the few remaining.

    • You can see why they don't make them that way anymore

      If everyone had appliances and and tools that never need to be replaced, then manufacturers wouldn’t sell very many. Sadly this fact won’t change just because something is made in the US.

  5. Histrionics aside

    It is obviously really irritating when a business screws up their customer service, and that is definitely a reason that people may choose to go elsewhere.

    But online vendors have now been around for quite a while and stores like Home Depot don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. My local Lowes and Home Depot have just as many cars parked in front of them on a weekend as they did ten years ago. There is always going to be something to be said for being able to see and touch stuff before you buy it. Furthermore, for every rant you can throw out about how crappy these stores are, you can find just as many people who will tell you stories of bad online purchases – mislabeled items, overcharges, broken items, items that arrive very late or never, etc. At least when you go to a store, you know whether they have the right thing at the right price.

    I really think that you were not being very realistic about the chances the Home Depot is really good enough at their inventory control to keep track of stuff like bolts from their centralized computer. If it were, me I would have called first. In fact, when I bought a push mower last year from Lowes, I checked their online inventory and then called to make sure that they really had it (they did).

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