Hopefully the home improvement stores figure out how to improve their web sites


Story number one…

A few years ago, Terry and I bought a new snow blower.

Oh sure… I call it a snow blower. Most places, I think, refer to them as snow throwers.

Whatever. You know what I mean.

We have a long driveway, one that rises, and the end result is that we decided to invest in a big snow blower. A really big one.

While shopping, Mike… the brother-in-law and all-around great guy… came along. And, with more knowledge on the subject, he offered us some great advice.

To make the long version of this story a bit shorter… in following part of his advice, we looked around our area to see what brands were most often being sold so that we could feel more comfortable about finding replacement parts or even repair work when needed.

You know… for things like shear pins.

For those of you that… like me, before I owned a snow blower and had to replace a shear pin or two… don’t know what they are for: a shear pin is actually designed to break. Yup. Break. One thing a shear pin helps with is that they keep the auger moving. You know… the auger… the blades. But if you hit something, like a really thick branch or a rock, and there’s no give in the auger, well… that can ruin more than your day. So the shear pins are basically there to break away so that no major damage is done.

(That sound you are hearing is mechanics and more informed people than myself pounding their heads into their desks at my description of augers and shear pins. No worries. Trust me. Heck... not even sheer pins... for my snow blower it’s sheer bolts. It’s close enough for us for now. We can get back to the story.)

One year as the winter was approaching, I was out for a day of errands and I decided to grab some extra shear pins ahead of time. Just to have them. Always good to have a few in the workshop and not need them than to not have them with a foot of fresh snow on the ground. So I stopped at a store location for the national chain where I purchased the snow blower.

They didn’t have them.

So I went home and checked out the store’s web site. There I was directed to the location down the street, which the web site stated had the very shear pins needed in stock.

That was nice to know… but instead of running out to the store, I just wanted to order them and have them sent to me.

Couldn’t do it.

And oh I tried.

Couldn’t do it.

No matter what I attempted, I kept getting placed into this never-ending-side-street of headaches. Essentially, here is what would happen…

Thanks to still having all of the materials from purchasing the snow blower, I knew the exact part number and name for the shear pins. I could plug those details right in to the search terms. That worked, and I would be led to a page for the pins. So far… a lovely experience.

At that point though, it would not let me add anything to my cart. There was no option for ordering the shear pins. I could only admire how smoothly the web site located the pins and put a fancy picture and description in front of me. For any attempt to move forward, the site navigation kept going to a page asking me to identify my zip code so they could select the nearest store to me. And instead of allowing an order of any type, once a zip code was entered it refreshed onto a page telling me the store nearest to me had them in stock.

When I tell you I tried everything… I mean I tried every-thing. I cleaned my browser history so it would erase the information I had apparently entered in order to select my favorite store when I entered my zip code. I used different types of browsers. And no matter what I tried I could not get an order or three of shear pins into my cart.

(I even tried entering in other zip codes to try and find a location where a nearby store didn’t have the shear pins hoping that it would then allow me to order them. Nope. According to the web site, even the stores in Miami (Florida) and San Diego (California) had the snow blower shear pins in stock.)

So one day, I drove to that nearest store.

And they didn’t have any of the shear pins in stock.

I tried to explain my problem to the sales associate in the area, and he told me I was nuts and should just order them online. (Well… sure… he didn’t use the term “nuts” exactly. But I left without the shear pins, after he and customer service came up empty. And I went right back home, pulled up the company web site, and found myself again reading the information that the store had them in stock.)

Eventually I drove over to a local repair place that specialized in tractors and other equipment… and, you know, just so happened to be an authorized dealer of the particular company that made my snow blower. I knew where they were because I had taken their efforts into account when selecting the snow blower we purchased. Within thirty seconds of opening the front door, we had not only laughed about the web site and physical store that had been no help, we also had two packages of the perfect shear pins on the counter in front of me to purchase.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Story number two…

A few years ago, Terry and I bought a new grill.

One of the things I recall most vividly about the snow blower purchase was a discussion with Mike about makes and models. Essentially he told us to be careful, because those huge national chains had a very interesting habit of changing manufacturers and models in stock from year to year, and parts were not necessarily interchangeable. (And, as you just read a moment ago, the lesson of the snow blower went and in a wide variety of ways completely proved the point.)

Anyway… we needed a new grill.

So we went out and looked around and found a couple we liked. I looked them over, and checked out the style of burners in each one. And… yup… eventually we picked our unit based in part on the burner style. See… I was smart. Having changed them for a different grill we had years before and understanding I might need to replace that part in the future of the new grill, I checked to see which type the store used most often, and looked over the inventory of repair parts for grills.

And… sure… you know what happened.

The burners were dead pretty quickly… but just outside of the warranty period. And when I went to the store, they didn’t carry a single model of grill that used that style of burner. Had the same brand available… with that company using a totally different design for their burners now. And it had been the most popular size of burners for the most popular design when we bought it. And, there were no burners of that style in their inventory of replacement parts.

Here’s where the story gets really funny…

When I tried to find the burners on-line, I started coming across all sorts of complaints. Couldn’t find the darn things any place. But the complaints… about the store selling them… about service… about how quickly the parts failed (and how amazingly they failed just out of warranty)… oh, I found plenty of those.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(And now, how those stories tie in to why I began writing this…)

Today I came across an article that talks about Home Depot – and, actually, that’s wrong, because thanks to some amazing experiences I’ve had with the company, I’ve learned that they take the “the” in The Home Depot quite seriously – so to start again… I came across reports that talks about The Home Depot and how they are focusing their future endeavors as a company on improving online sales.

(Oh… I’d point out that I didn’t buy the snow blower or grill at The Home Depot, but that would only pretty much tell you that since I told you I bought both from a national chain, I got them at Lowe’s. And I don’t want to talk badly about Lowe’s. I like Lowe’s… and I like The Home Depot… overall. I just have some isolated moments of very painful headaches as a result of blindingly stupid advice from ill-informed associates at both places. (And their web sites.) Anyway…)

The article ended up bringing me close to hysterical laughter. It talked about how they have more or less realized a saturation of the physical store market, and need to improve the online experience to take advantage of the way most people shop, and so on.

And… see… all of that is true.

But here’s the thing…

Thought number one -- I’d like to think I can hit average scores when it comes to working around the house. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot. And, I’m fortunate to have some tremendous family and friends to help out with advice… and occasionally, by showing up to work on something with me.

Realistically though, my toolbox isn’t packed with experience and knowledge. I’ve added several things thanks to home ownership, successful (and unsuccessful) efforts, and the thoughts of others. But, proud as I am of some of my efforts, my troubleshooting checklist isn’t long and unending. It has limits.

Thought number two -- I’m not usually one to purchase the extended warranty. In most cases, if I can’t afford to replace it, I probably shouldn’t be getting it. And considering how fast technology is moving, the reality is, many items are out of date by the time the warranty ends.

And… things are so damn frustrating. Who the hell was in on the meeting where it was decided that a washing machine should only last five years? They’re not kidding either. Instead of improving the quality, most units have reduced their lifespan while adding those wonderful features like calling your cell phone to tell you the load has finished and is ready to place in the dryer. (It’s a beautiful concept referred to as “planned obsolescence” in the industry.)

And that thing… maybe you thought I forget the “here’s the thing” from a moment ago… is that everything has become disposable. Somehow, we’ve been trained to accept it. Somehow we are all supposed to agree that we can’t fix it and we need to replace it.

When I fill the rototiller at the beginning of the season and it won’t run… when the starter cord on the lawnmower snaps… I only have a few tricks to attempt or calls to make. And then? It’s new lawnmower time.

I think you could make a reasonable argument that’s exactly what these places are relying on. If you can’t get a new burner… the majority of people will buy a new grill. Heck… it’s out of warranty… it’s time to get a new one anyway!

Even if the fix is simple… a shear pin of all things… some people may not be able to figure that out. And for want of $5-or-less part, it’s a stop at the ATM to pay for the servicing. Often it’s cheaper to buy a new one than it is to repair the old one.

And so now we have them talking about home deliveries and on-line orders.


The concept is dead-on-center-accurate. Overall.

But here’s something funny… many people go to Lowe’s and The Home Depot because they want to fix things now… today… right now. There’s more than one reason the stores open at 7am. Don’t waste the day… get the part before the sun has really risen and get to work.

If the web sites aren’t going to be easy to navigate… if the parts keep changing… if people need something they couldn’t plan far enough ahead and want it now… I’m not sure if online efforts are going to make the difference.

They should help. By no means am I saying it isn’t a smart thing to investigate and improve.

Instead, I just want to pause for a moment, and say that from my experience once I get online the whole worldwide web is my marketplace. The Home Depot needs to not only do it better and faster online than The Home Depot does it at their stores… they need to do it better and faster and less expensively than everyone else.

And… I know for a fact... several other places will offer the shear pins I need, and actually have them in stock.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com