Volume 46, Issue 5 - June 2007

Secret Shopper
Shelter Goes Undercover
by Ellen Giard, Penny Stacey and Samantha Carpenter, 
Ellen Giard and Penny Stacey are contributing writers. Samantha Carpenter is editor of Shelter magazine.

Seal the Deal
Shoppers Test Product Knowledge about Water Repellents

Most lumberyards and retailers sell deck sealants. But what do they recommend to customers who are shopping for the best one for their deck? Three of Shelter’s editors went undercover this month to see how knowledgeable two lumberyards and one retailer are about their sealant products and what they suggest using.

A Deck of Many Colors
If you weren’t on a mission to find Glass Lumber & Builders Supply in New Philadelphia, Ohio, you’d very likely drive right past it. But I did indeed find it one Saturday morning in April when I set out in search of a sealant for the pine deck I plan to build this summer. 

From the outside, the store looked small and the parking lot was even smaller. An assortment of unfinished lumber items such, as windows and railings, were propped up along the outside of the building front. And if it wasn’t for the “Yes, We’re Open” sign hanging on the front door, you might not know that they were ready for customers. 

A doorbell had chimed upon my entrance, but no one came forward to greet me. I walked toward the counter (still seeing no one), but as I began creeping around the end aisle shelf, I saw a man and a woman sitting behind the counter. The man stood up slowly and made his way toward the counter.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Yes you may,” I answered. “I’m looking for a sealant for a pine lumber deck. Do you offer any?”

“Yes,” he said with a slow drawl as he made his way around the counter. “The only ones I have would be down here,” he said, walking down one of the short aisles to some shelves that lined the back wall. “These are the only two I have … this one … no not that. That’s something else,” he said as he looked at the different cans on two shelves. 

“This one,” he said pointing to a 1-gallon-can of Penofin®. “Do you want clear or a color? This one comes in a lot of colors,” he said as he casually thumbed his way through a stack of brochures that had been tossed along the tops of the cans. I wasn’t sure if he was searching for a brochure specifically for me or if there was just something in the paperwork that caught his eye, so I asked.“

OK, do you have a brochure I can take?”

“Let’s see, here’s this, no wait this is for something else,” he continued pushing his way through the brochures before he found the right one.

“Here you go, and there’s a little chart inside that shows all the colors available, but the color chart is so small you can hardly tell what’s what,” he said. “I thought there was another one that showed the colors better, but I don’t see it here.”

“Now, you also mentioned you had another sealant,” I said.

“Yep, this one here,” he said pointing toward a lower shelf and 1-gallon cans of a Wolman® product.

“And do you have some information on it?”

He again began rummaging through the pile of brochures before he pulled out the right one.

“This one costs $32 a gallon and the Penofin is $38.60 a gallon.”

“So what’s the difference in the two sealants?” I asked.

“There’s not really much difference,” he said. “People like the Penofin because of all the colors it comes in and most of the people who work here prefer it, too. I can also get it for you in 5-gallon containers.”

“OK, well that’s good to know,” I said. “You’re welcome,” he said as he started to walk back toward the counter. 

I stood there and rummaged through the pile of brochures myself and came across one labeled “Penofin Color Selection Guide.” I opened it and the entire brochure was about the available colors. I figured this must be the one he was looking for. 

“Oh well,” I thought. I clinched my three brochures and began heading out of the store, thinking about all of the sealant color choices and with visions of my new deck dancing in my head. -EG

Four to the Rescue
As I entered the Southpoint Lowe’s in Fredericksburg, Va., on April 23, I’ll admit, what I expected was a bit skewed. The last time our magazine visited Lowe’s for a Secret Shopper article (see March 2007 Shelter™, page 52), the results weren’t stellar. Sarah Batcheler, assistant editor for Shelter™, discovered an unkempt store with an unhelpful staff. However, I was pleasantly surprised by my visit; from the moment I walked in, my search for a sealant for my pine deck was a successful one.

I was halfway to my destination when a nice gentleman in the lock and key department asked if I needed any help. I told him I was looking for a deck sealant, and he walked me down to the end of the store and located another employee, Kathy, and asked her if she could help me. She said I needed to talk to someone named Lloyd, whom she quickly paged, and then saw coming up the aisle immediately thereafter.

“That’s the guy who can help you,” she said, and pointed in his direction.

I walked toward Lloyd and told him what I was looking for. As I told him this, Kathy yelled down the aisle to him, “I think she needs to go to paints.” He replied, jokingly, that he knew that, but wanted to show me his small selection of sealants so that he could look tall momentarily to his co-workers. (I’m only 5-foot tall, and he was likely a towering 5’8 over me.)

He showed me the small selection of sealants in the lumber department, but said he thought what I really needed was a type of stain, which would be found in the paints section. He offered to show me the way, but I told him I could find it and headed on my way—pleased that to this point, not just one, but three people had already tried to help me. Regardless of whether any of them was able to assist me or not, it’s still a testament to the store that all of them tried.

As I approached the paints section, I didn’t see anyone to ask for help. I wandered around for a moment, until I finally noticed a woman wearing a Lowe’s vest in the wallpaper section. She was working on something, so I approached and said, “Excuse me, m’am, do you work in the paint department?”

“No, but I can help you—I fill in over there all the time,” she said, as she quickly dropped what she was doing and escorted me to the sealants, after asking for what I was looking.

This person, also named Cathy, (this time with a “C”), suggested I go with the Olympic® Maximum Clear Waterproof Sealant, which is guaranteed for two years. Noticing a range of cans emblazed with the Olympic brand, I asked why the Olympic Maximum, and not another. Cathy walked me through all of the multi-colored cans of the sealant, explaining that not all of them are warranted for two years, one is warranted for 15 years, some are colored, some are clear—and basically whatever I was looking for was among these cans. The one she recommended, Olympic Maximum, was $24.97 for a one-gallon can, which she said she thought would cover my deck, after I’d described it in size to her.

I asked how long this job was going to take me and how I should apply the sealant, and Cathy showed me the Olympic Spray and Go, which was $12.97, to apply the product.

After making sure I didn’t have any more questions, Cathy went on her way with a smile.

As I left the aisle and headed out of the store, I spotted one of my husband’s close friends. Low and behold, he was looking for a sealant for his own, non-fictional deck.I told him Lowe’s has a lot to offer and happily told him I was sure he’d find what he was looking for there—and if not, I was sure Cathy would be glad to help him as she had me. -PS

No Buyer’s Remorse
It was a Friday morning when my husband, two sons and I pulled up in front of F.L. Davis Cash Lumber Co. in Clinton, Ark. We were looking for a deck sealant to put on our 13 year-old deck. We entered the store and immediately saw the sealant aisle to the left on the first row. Upon entering, we made eye contact with the cashier behind the checkout counter. 

We stood there for a couple of minutes, and I wanted to walk to the end of the aisle to make our presence a little more known, but my husband said, “Stay here and see how long it takes.” 

Because I tend to be impatient, I started walking to the front of the aisle and then an employee walked by and said, “Can we help you with something?”

I said, “You sure can. We have some questions about deck sealants.”

She said, “Jackie’s the person. She knows all about our paints. I’ll get her for you.”

Two minutes later, Jackie came to answer our questions.

“What kind of deck sealant do you recommend?” my husband asked.

Jackie first said Thompson’s was a good deck sealant. But then it was our turn to answer questions.

“How many square feet is your deck and is it in the sun?” she asked.

“Our pine deck is 150 to 200 square-feet,” my husband said. “Yes, it’s in the sun most of the time,” I said. “It has probably never had a sealant put on it,” my husband said, “and we’d like to get at least four more years out of it. Last year, we had to nail back in all the nails that were coming up.”

“If you have a deck that is in the sun all the time, I would suggest Flood® CWF-UV Exterior Clear Wood Finish,” Jackie said. “I also tell my customers that have nails coming up to take them out and replace them with screws.”

“How much deck sealant should we buy?” my husband asked.

“Five gallons should cover your deck,” Jackie said.

“How do I apply it?” my husband asked.

“The easiest way is to buy a garden sprayer, clean it out and put your deck sealant in there and spray it on,” Jackie said.

“How long will this deck sealant last?” I asked.

“It’s guaranteed for four years, but I think you can get a good two or three out of it. Four may be pushing it,” Jackie said.

“We’ll take it,” my husband said. “How much is it?”

“It’s $94.99 for five gallons,” Jackie said.

“Now let me ask you this,” my husband said. “We live in Conway and just came up this way to get out of town. Can we buy this product at Lowe’s or Home Depot if we run out?”

“Yes, I think both carry it,” she said.

My husband offered to take the five-gallon bucket of CWF-UV to the checkout counter, but Jackie declined. The bill came to $103.54, and Jackie reminded us that if we had any problems or questions her name and the phone number were on the ticket.

Out of curiosity, I called Lowe’s to see how much their five gallon bucket of CWF-UV is, and it’s $80.00. While the product was $14.99 more to buy at the lumberyard than at Lowe’s, Jackie knew her product and knew how to sell it, and we have no buyer’s remorse. 

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