Grizzled old LBM industry veterans like me have no problem remembering the emergence of big box retailers in the ‘80s, which mainstream business media at the time referenced as proof of impending extinction for traditional lumberyards and hardware stores. The difference, defenders of the soon-to-be-extinct companies proclaimed, was in service. But what is service, exactly? Buckle-up, my friend, and prepare for a story that answers that question. It may seem exaggerated, but I swear is 100% true.
Our story begins last weekend when our old wheelbarrow broke. The local hardware store was closed, so I went to the nearest big box store. The wheelbarrow area was in disarray, but after a few minutes I found a matching tray, handles, and box of parts to put it all together and headed to the checkout. Instead of $119.95, it rang up for $0.01. An employee saw this, told me that one isn’t for sale, and wheeled my cart away. When she returned, I asked why I can’t buy that one and she explained that when something rings up for $0.01, they have an agreement with the vendor to destroy that product. I noted that it’s brand new, nothing wrong with it, and may I please buy it? “No and there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said, and told me to pick out a different one. I asked how to determine which wheelbarrows on the retail floor are for sale (vs. those to be destroyed). She didn’t know but promised to send someone from that department to help navigate.
The promised helper never showed up, so I chose a different wheelbarrow— but couldn’t find the box of parts to assemble it. I went to check out, explained that I couldn’t find the box of parts, and they sent someone to find it. When that person didn’t return, they asked if I really wanted that wheelbarrow. I said actually, I’d prefer the one in the cart. They said, sorry, you can’t buy that one. Yes, I said, I know. By the time an employee finally showed up with the wrong box of parts, I’d been there almost an hour, so I wished them well and headed home wondering what just happened.
Two days later, I stopped into the local hardware store. “Welcome! What can we help you find?” A wheelbarrow, I said. They led me to the well-organized wheelbarrow section, and I pointed and said I’d like that one. They asked if I’d like it assembled for $20. I said yes, as a matter of fact, I’d love to have it assembled for $20. Ten minutes after walking into the store, I walked out with the receipt and the promise of a call as soon as it’s ready.
By the way, I paid less for the assembled wheelbarrow than I’d attempted to pay for an unassembled wheelbarrow from the big box store. Imagine that.
Fun fact: LBM Journal is in its 20th year, and in that time, we have yet to feature a big box retailer on our cover. We focus instead on companies like Chase Lumber, a three-location dealer in Wisconsin that’s still going strong after 125 years. Val Stiener, a fifth-generation owner, graces our cover and spoke with Editor James Anderson for this month’s profile (p. 34). If, by chance, you want to buy a wheelbarrow on display at Chase Lumber, I have a hunch that Val will be happy to sell it to you.
— Rick Schumacher
Executive Editor & Publisher