Building a Future for Distributors and Dealers of Building Products

Volume 44,  Issue 5                                        June 2005

Why I'll Never Look at Big Box Stores the Same Way Again
by Brigid O'Leary

I was in Tampa recently for work and, while there, was given the opportunity to write my first Secret Shopper. The goal was to look at decking material. Now, to be honest, I tend to frequent the local big box when I need stuff around my house—and being a very new homeowner, this is often the case. I was pleased to be looking into decking material, as my house does have a deck on it that I feel needs some work (replacing a few planks, sealing it, etc.). I was ready.

Tampa, Here I Come
Getting to Tampa was easy. Getting the Secret Shopper done was not.

My attempt to visit the store in question was curtailed first by my inability to find the store, due to some construction and detours, and then by store personnel themselves when I called to ask directions and was informed that they are not a retail store but sell to other businesses. Somewhat lost, very tired and perplexed, I pulled over to a gas station and called my editor to find out what to do next. Luckily, I had passed several big box stores during my adventures. Samantha told me to head on over to a particular big box and see what I could find out there.

So I did, and it was a very typical big box experience. I did notice, however, that given what I was supposed to be looking for and my degree of expertise in the field (which would be none), it really wasn’t that great an experience.

Same Ole, Same Ole
The parking lot was, of course, huge and about as well maintained as any other big box store located alongside other stores. The store itself was also about as clean as a standard big box; I wasn’t expecting it to be hospital quality, but things were fairly tidy and the floor was clean. The day I visited it had been raining off and on all day, but the floors didn’t catch my attention as being particularly dirty. If there was any background music, I wasn’t cognizant of it, but I had a lot on my mind, including the questions I wanted to ask and the “story” I would tell if needed (not that I had to create a story, I do have “issues” with my deck and know exactly what I want to change). Not that it mattered. 

What Happened to Customer Service?
I wasn’t greeted by anyone or anything upon entering the store and trying to find what I was looking for was not as easy as I thought it would be, especially considering it’s a BIG BOX and all locations of the chain are supposed to be set up the same, right? I wandered the aisles—some of which weren’t accessible due to stock waiting to be shelved—reading the overhead signs on the endcaps. No one approached me or asked if I needed help (though I did keep my ‘puzzled’ face on) until I neared the lumber section of the store. One employee noticed I looked lost and, though it was obvious he was in the middle of filling an order of some sort, he asked me if I were looking for something specific. Our conversation went something like this:

Him: “Are you looking for something specific?”
Me: (with a very confused look on my face) “Decking.” 
Him: (returns confused look) “What kind of decking?”
Me: “I need to make some repairs to my deck. Some of the planks are warped.”
Him: “Oh. Down there, last aisle, on the left. On the bottom, on the left.”

He indicated that I continue on down the center aisle, and off I went. I found what I believe he intended me to find, but I’m still not 100-percent sure. There was a cart (one of those nice, big, flat-bed “carts” you find at big box home improvement stores) filled with lumber parked in front of the lumber at which I think I was looking, so I had to crouch and twist and move to see if I could find the price, which was, of course, behind the cart.

The same employee came by a moment later, still pushing the cart he had when he first offered his assistance, still trying to fill an order—a seemingly very large order of timber, from what I could tell—and told me that a lot of people use one size (I do believe he said 2x4. He was pointing it out to me—thankfully that at which I was looking) but a few people do use a larger size. 

Per my conversation with Samantha, I decided to try my luck for getting information on alternative decking. I asked if there was anything else I could use, other than wood, given that the wood deck I have now is splitting and warping and turning gray. 

He said there was composite decking the next aisle over, bottom shelf on the right. I asked if it would hold up and if I needed to do anything to it to protect it and he said no, it would be fine and, seeming to feel the conversation over—or needing to finish filling the order, he left, still pushing the cart filled with building products.

I moseyed on over to the area he indicated and did, in fact, find composite decking. Just composite decking; no informational material about it, and no one around to ask. 

After a few minutes I gave up and left the store—thinking that the experience really wasn’t much different than the last time I was at a similar store, but feeling now that really there isn’t much direction for customers in the big box stores unless they know exactly what they want and need. 

My last visit to a big box store prior to this one was for plumbing material, which I would like to add is still sitting on the counter in my bathroom because I haven’t felt like tackling the job of fixing the (spare) toilet and now I’m not even sure if I bought the right components. 

Brigid O’Leary is an assistant editor for SHELTER magazine.

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