Our Ratings Tables show how Boston area hardware stores stack up for
quality and price.
For prices, Home Depot and Lowes soundly beat all of the independents
and other chains. But our price survey did find below-average prices at
several area independent stores.
Among the independents, we found big store-to-store price variation. Prices
at some stores were about 10 percent below the all-store average for items
we checked, while prices at others were more than 20 percent above average.
At many independent stores, you may be able to save 10 to 15 percent off
regular prices if you buy a lot. Some offer contractors discounts to customers
who commit to spending $500 or so over a few weeks, or offer discounts
for using store charge accounts.
For many customers, price is only one consideration. You also want good
advice and customer service. Unfortunately, price leaders Home Depot and
Lowes fall well short on some key service fronts. In our surveys of area
consumers, Home Depot, at the time of our last full, published article,
received superior ratings for quality of advice from only 31 percent
of its surveyed customers and Lowes from only 38 percent. On the other
hand, a number of independent stores throughout the Boston area received
superior ratings from more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers.
ThisOldHouse.coms list of must-have tools includes a screwdriver set,
tape measure, large toolbox, hammer, duct tape, flashlight, various pliers,
utility knife, putty knife, handsaw, and adjustable wrench. Its a good
list (although our editor believes his mothers tool arsenala butter knife
and an old shoeis equally effective). No matter your fix-it skillset and
toolset, every do-it-yourselfer also needs a reliable hardware store at
the readypreferably one that charges reasonable prices. To help you find
one, our Ratings Tables have ratings of Boston area stores for quality
Running a top-notch hardware store starts with recruiting well-informed,
helpful staff. Because the best hardware store salespersons must possess
the knowledge of plumbers, painters, electricians, roofers, landscapers,
carpenters, and a dozen other tradespeople, finding and retaining a cadre
of these professional know-it-alls is no easy feat.
In addition to superior staff, the best hardware stores somehow manage
to stock just about everything their customers need, and organize this
amazing jumble of products so customers and staff can find them.
Luckily, many hardware stores in the Boston area meet these challenges,
as evidenced by the rave reviews they receive from their customers. Our
Ratings Tables report how area consumers we surveyed (primarily CHECKBOOK
and Consumer Reports subscribers) rated hardware stores they used. The
table lists ratings for Boston area hardware stores that received at least
10 ratings on our surveys. We asked consumers to rate stores they had used
as inferior, adequate, or superior on several aspects of service,
including advice on choice and use of products, promptness of service,
staff attitudes/atmosphere, ease of looking at/testing products, variety
of products, reliability (standing behind products, doing whats promised,
etc.), and overall quality. Our Ratings Tables show the percent
of customers who rated each store superior (as opposed to adequate
or inferior) on each question. (Our customer survey and other research
methods are further described here.)
There are independent stores in the area that are standouts for good advice
and the best staff attitudesthe two aspects of service hardware store
customers care about most. As our Ratings Tables show, a number of
independent stores throughout the Boston area were rated superior for
quality of advice by more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers.
National chains Home Depot and Lowes scored much lower. On average, at
the time of our last full, published article, area Home Depot stores were
rated superior for quality of advice by only 31 percent of their surveyed
customers, and Lowes stores by only 38 percent.
Among the areas many Ace and True Value stores, there is no consistent
pattern in ratings for advice or other aspects of service. That is not
surprising since Ace and True Value are buying cooperatives for independent
stores that impose no performance standards or specific operating procedures
Whichever store you choose, seek out the specific clerks most capable of
providing helpful advice. Over time, youll learn who they are by trial
and error, but you can expedite the process by asking questionsfor example,
Who can give me the most expert advice about plumbing?
Once you have identified staff with the knowhow, make sure you get served
by them, rather than by less-knowledgeable staff members. We have all experienced
the frustration of being latched onto by a staff member who doesnt know
the answers. One strategy when approached by other staff is to thank them
but explain that there is a specific staff member you want to talk with.
In contrast to their low ratings for quality of advice, the big chains
score better in terms of another key consideration in store selection:
variety of products. Although they generally dont rate as high for variety
as for advice, many independent stores do a masterful joboften in a relatively
small spaceof offering the variety of items their customers want.
In addition to variations in the range of products, hardware stores also
vary in special services offered. Services such as tool sharpening, key
making, and glass cutting are offered by many stores, while bicycle and
lawn mower repair are offered by very few. Some stores offer free classes
on such topics as landscaping, floor installation, and cabinet installation.
And of the many places to rent tools, your local hardware store is likely
to be the most convenient.
Before buying items at a hardware store, find out about its return policy.
A liberal return policy is important in the hardware business because it
is fairly easy to miscalculate the volume of paint, number of nails, or
size of a hinge a job needs. If you buy materials for a project ahead of
time, it may be months before you realize that you have too much, the wrong
thing, or a defective product. It helps to buy from a hardware store that
willingly accepts returns.
From the stores standpoint, however, there are real disadvantages to a
liberal return policy. First, long delays may mean a store no longer carries
the product customers want to return. Second, customers probably will have
damaged the packaging. Hardware manufacturers, for inventory and merchandising
reasons, now prepackage many items that used to be sold out of bins or
from other types of open displays. Everything from bolts to braces now
comes sealed in clear plastic packs. If you find out only after opening
the package that you need to return an unsuitable corner brace, the store
knows it will be very hard to sell. A further problem is crime: Like other
types of retailers, hardware stores must deal with crooks who seek cash
refunds for stolen merchandise.
Despite these problems, return practices at most hardware stores are remarkably
liberal. Almost all stores offer a full refund on returns for an indefinite
periodas long as the customer presents a receipt and the item can be resold.
And managers whose stores stated policies impose time limits and proof
of purchase requirements indicate that, in practice, they are often much
more flexible. Even if a sign over the checkout counter says No returns
after 30 days, the store might offer regular customers a refund on merchandise
purchased over a year before. Some stores even offer refunds to regular
customers who have no receipts and even if the items have no price tags.
Our Ratings Tables show how surveyed consumers rated their stores for
reliability (standing behind products, doing whats promised, etc.).
Given the consumer-friendly return policies of many stores, it is not surprising
that we found less variation in scores for reliability than for the other
To compare prices, our mystery shoppers called each store that was evaluated
in our last full, published article several times and, without revealing
their affiliation with CHECKBOOK, requested prices for 27 items.
We used those prices to calculate each stores price comparison score,
reported on our Ratings Tables. Our price comparison scores show how
a stores prices compare to the average prices at all surveyed stores for
the same mix of items. The price comparison scores are calculated so that
a score of $100 is about average, a score of $110 means prices about 10
percent above average, and a score of $90 about 10 percent below average.
For the chainswhich had little price variation among outletswe averaged
the prices at several sample stores and calculated the chains price comparison
scores for all their stores.
Although the areas independent stores tended to score higher than the
big chains for customer satisfaction, none beat Home Depot or Lowes for
price. We did, however, find a number of independentsincluding some that
rated high on advice and other quality measureswith below-average prices.
At many stores, you can save money just by asking for a discount. Some
independent stores offer a 10 to 15 percent discount on all items to customers
who use a store charge account or the stores own credit card. Because
our price comparison scores dont take such discounts into account, these
discounts would make those stores prices more competitive with the big
chains than our Ratings Tables indicate.
For large projects that require a lot of equipment and materials, you might
get a 10 to 20 percent contractors discount from an independent storebut
not from the big chainssimply by requesting it. Some stores offer discounts
to homeowners who plan to spend over $500and in some cases even lessover
a couple of weeks. Our price comparison scores dont reflect such discounts.
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