Sunday, October 28, 2007

Retail Tribalism

I hate Lowe's.

I mean, I really really really hate Lowe's.

When one of my customers says something like, "Well maybe I'll try over at Lowe's..." my blood just boils.

Now, a scant two months ago, I had barely considered Lowe's. I had never been in a Lowe's (and that's never going to happen now). But until I started working at Ho(t)me(n) Depot, Lowe's wasn't even on my radar.

Although I tend to be all about brand loyalty, I don't know that I particularly considered myself to be a Ho(t)me(n) Depot shopper. True, the path between the two places I lived in Brooklyn and the Ho(t)me(n) Depot on 3rd Avenue by the on-ramp to 278 was well worn, and one of the first places I discovered upon moving to Jersey City was where the Ho(t)me(n) Depot was located, this was more a matter of knowing what Ho(t)me(n) Depot was and what they sold there than any sense of loyalty.

If there had been a Lowe's that was closer or had easier parking, I probably would have gone there.

Well those days are gone.

Maybe it was inculcated while watching those memorable indoctrination orientation videos. (If you'll remember, at one point I was moved to tears.) One method of testing that they did was based on having CGI customers come up and ask you questions about buying air filters or sump pumps or such. If you made a correct recommendation, you were rewarded with the comforting image of the customer pulling up to Ho(t)me(n) Depot. But if you made a bad recommendation, you'd see a car pulling up outside of "Slowe's" across the street.

That may have planted the seed, but it's become so much more than that.

I hate Lowe's.

First there was Ho(t)me(n) Depot. The founders had a vision: build a big warehouse and sell everything anybody could want for home improvement out of that warehouse. Selling out of a warehouse meant you didn't have to spend a lot of money on maintaining a separate warehouse, you could have all your inventory right there, ready to be picked up and carted home. Then along came Lowe's. They decided to also sell home improvement stuff (no points for Original Ideas, obviously), but instead of looking like a warehouse, they wanted to make it prettier. I guess the thinking there was that average folks might be intimidated walking into a place that looks like a lumberyard. And I guess there's some merit to that. But Ho(t)me(n) Depot bridges that divide by hiring people knowledgeable about the stuff we sell. If you have a plumbing problem or want to install canister lights in your living room, then head to your local Ho(t)me(n) Depot and there will be someone there who will not just sell you every blessed thing you need to fix the problem (at rock bottom prices), but they'll talk you through it step-by-step so you can go home and take care of it yourself. Trust!

So now, after working there, I love Ho(t)me(n) Depot. Being good at my job boils down to one thing: knowledge of how to do stuff. All day long, folks come to me with problems, and I listen, offer suggestions, and do my best to get them to a point where they feel confident that they have everything they need to fix it themselves. (Today, for example, a guy asked me if we sold backsplash type things for over the stove. I said, "I'll show you what we have here in KItchens & Baths, then I'll tell you why you shouldn't buy it, and then I'll offer a suggestion. I showed him this cheapo plastic crap that we sell that looks like pressed tin that graced the ceilings of so many of my NYC apartments. But, I explained, it's plastic. So it has no heat resistance. So it's not what you want for over a stove. Then I took him over to the aisle where we have the wall tile. I explained that he could pick out a selection of decorative tile to fit behind his stovetop, come up with a unique arrangement, set it, grout it, and it would look pretty damn good. His face lit up while I talked. "Is that hard to do?" he asked. I talked him through it, step by step, then turned him over to an associate in Floors & Walls so he could pick out his tile and get everything he needed for the project.)

You can do it. We can help.

So yeah. I love Ho(t)me(n) Depot.

And I really hate Lowe's.

I remember reading in one of those Brain Science articles I'm so fond of about how there's a part of the brain that has evolved to help us operate in a tribal fashion. It came out of hooking up the crania of two people to EKGs and having them talk about politics. Some people in the group identified themselves as Democrats, some as Republicans, and some had no particular political affiliation that they could name. When two independents were discussing immigration or foreign policy or whatever, the parts of their brains associated with logical thinking and decision making and verbal skills lit up. More or less the same deal when a Democrat or a Republican was talking to an independent.

But, when a Democrat was talking to a Republican, and they knew that about each other, those parts of the brain were dimmed in comparison to the part that identifies friends and enemies, kin and strangers. And the discussions often became heated. When two Democrats or two Republicans were talking, even though they disagreed, there was no aggression.

The researchers concluded that back in the days when we were all roaming the savanahs, it was vitally important that we be able to recognize members of our tribe and be cooperative and such, but also to recognize members of other tribes with whom we were competing for food and water and mates and respond with aggression.

In other words, there's a neurological basis for tribalism.

And that's gotta be what's at work here.

For one thing, I sense similar feelings in my fellow employees. I think if I were to suggest that we run across the street some night and let the air out of the tires of the cars in the Lowe's parking lot--and how skeevy is it that Lowe's always open up basically across the street from a Ho(t)me(n) Depot? Low indeed--I bet I'd get some takers.

Seeking further confirmation, I decided to ask my friend UnFortunate, who works at Barnes & Noble, if he had any feelings about Borders. On my coffee break one day, I sent him a text message to inquire.

Almost immediately came the reply: I loathe Borders.

1 comment:

John M. said...

Sorry Drew, but when xris and I were doing our kitchen, the whole HD experience was from hell. We would go late at night because the crowds were less and that's when we had time, but customers would regularly flame out, just start screaming in the middle of an aisle because there was no one around to help them. Calls would be made on intercom for an "associate" to come to so and so, and no one would show. And this is not to mention the nightmare of having the contractors in our house, ripping up the original tongue and groove floor without asking.

We gravitated to Lowes because it was less of a nightmare than the HD near the Gowanus. I trust yours is beter run, but me, I loathe HD. What can I say.