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Hardware Stores (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2011/Winter 2012)
 
Go to Updated Ratings of 126 Boston Area Hardware Stores

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Hardware Stores
Our ratings of hardware stores, shown on our Ratings Tables, show how Boston area stores stack up for quality and price. 

For prices, Home Depot and Lowe’s soundly beat all of the independents and other chains. But our price survey did find below-average prices at local chain Rocky’s Ace Hardware and several area independent stores. 

Among the independents, we found big store-to-store price variation. Prices at some stores were more than 10 percent below the all-store average for items we checked, while prices at others were more than 15 percent above average. 

At many independent stores, you may be able to save 10 to 15 percent off regular prices if you will be buying 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 other service features. Unfortunately, price leaders Home Depot and Lowe’s fall well short on some key service fronts. In our surveys of area consumers, at the time of our last full, published article, Home Depot received “superior” ratings for quality of advice from only 26 percent of its surveyed customers and Lowe’s from only 43 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. Local chain Rocky’s Ace Hardware, which we found had prices about 11 percent below average, was scored “superior” for advice from a respectable 69 percent of its surveyed customers. 

Introduction 

Countersinks and awls. T-joints and GFIs. Acrylics and urethanes. Mortises and escutcheons. All Greek to you? If you’re like most of us, when you need to do a home repair you need help. Pick the right hardware store and you’ll get a lot of it; pick wrong and you’ll walk out more dazed and confused than when you walked in. Our ratings of Boston area stores for quality and price, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find the right place to start. 

Getting Great Service 

Running a top-notch hardware store is a challenge, starting with recruiting well-informed, helpful staff. Given that 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 mean 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 the challenge and receive rave reviews, like the following from surveyed customers— 

“Knowledgeable staff can help with almost every problem.” 

“While they can’t compete in variety and price with the big-box stores, they make up for it with friendly help and assistance. And their smallish size can be deceiving—they have a very broad variety of items tucked into a small footprint.” 

“The staff here is extremely attentive and helpful. They work very well together to help navigate through the maze of hardware. I am far from handy, but their guidance helps overcome that.” 

“Has everything! When (on occasion), they don’t, they will get it for you. A treasure.” 

“I park my car in front, walk through the front door, and ask the first clerk I see, ‘Where can I find small green widgets?’ He knows everything about green widgets, takes me to the right aisle, helps me choose the right widget, and I’m in and out...in five minutes... Heck, it takes five minutes just to park my car and walk to the door of a big box!” 

Unfortunately, many other hardware stores clearly can’t keep up with the best. For these stores, consumers lament— 

“Can’t find help when needed. They can’t find products in their own store. Customer service is typically discourteous.” 

“Staff stretched thin and not well trained. Some can be outstanding, but it’s pretty much luck of the draw. You can spend a long time here trying to figure out for yourself what to buy.” 

“Customer service is poor. Salespeople often try to avoid customers and are quick to say, ‘This is not my department,’ then tell you to wait for someone they say is coming...and wait, and wait.” 

“Employees seem to act as if they hate being there. Shelves are not kept stocked.” 

“Whatever you need always seems to be out of stock.” 

“Almost impossible to find staff for questions/assistance. When found, level of knowledge often found wanting.” 

To help you find those hardware stores that have almost everything, and where staff are prepared to answer the toughest questions, our Ratings Tables show how CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers we surveyed rated Boston area stores that received at least 10 ratings. 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 what’s 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. (For more information on our customer survey and other research methods, click here.)

There are independent stores in the area that are standouts for good advice and the best staff attitudes—the two service features hardware store customers care most about. 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 Lowe’s 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 26 percent of their surveyed customers, and Lowe’s stores by only 43 percent. 

Among the area’s many Ace and True Value stores, there is no consistent pattern in ratings for advice or other service features. That is not surprising since Ace and True Value are buying cooperatives for independent stores and impose no performance standards or specific operating procedures on affiliates. 

Whichever store you choose, seek out the specific clerks most capable of providing helpful advice. Over time, you’ll learn who they are by trial and error, but you can expedite the process by simply asking—for example, “Who will be able to give me the most expert advice on some plumbing questions?” 

Once you have identified staff with the know-how, the next challenge is to make sure you get served by them, rather than by some less-knowledgeable clerk. We have all experienced the frustration of being latched onto by a clerk who doesn’t really have the answers. One strategy when approached by other staff is simply to thank them but explain that there is a specific clerk you want to talk with. 

Getting What You Need 

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 don’t rate as high for variety as for advice, many independent stores do a masterful job—often in a relatively small space—of offering the variety of items their customers want. 

In addition to variations in the range of products on hand, hardware stores also vary in the special services they offer. Services range from tool sharpening, key making, and glass cutting offered by many stores, to bicycle and lawn mower repair, which very few offer. Some stores also offer free classes on such topics as landscaping, floor installation, and cabinet installation. And while there are many places to rent tools, the local hardware store is likely to be the most convenient. We have not reported on the range of services each store offers, but you can easily check whether stores offer the services you need. 

Getting Flexible Return Policies 

Before buying items at a hardware store, find out about its refund policy. A liberal return policy is important in the hardware business because it is fairly easy to miscalculate the volume of paint, weight of nails, or size of a hinge needed for a job. 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 deal with a hardware store that willingly accepts returns. 

From the store’s standpoint, there are real disadvantages to a liberal return policy. First, long delays may mean a store no longer merchandises 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 individuals who seek cash refunds for stolen merchandise. 

Despite these problems, we find that return practices at most hardware stores are remarkably liberal. Almost all stores offer a full refund on returns for an indefinite period, as long as the customer presents a receipt and the item can be resold. And managers whose stores have stated policies regarding 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 will 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 what’s 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 quality measures. 

Getting Good Prices 

To compare prices, our shoppers made a number of calls to each store that was evaluated in our last full, published article and, without revealing their affiliation with CHECKBOOK, attempted to obtain prices for 23 items. 

We used those prices to calculate each store’s price index score, reported on our Ratings Tables. Our price index scores are intended to show how a store’s prices compared to the average prices at all surveyed stores for the same mix of items. The price index scores are calculated so that a price index of $100 is about average; a score of $110 means prices about 10 percent above average; a score of $90 about 10 percent below average.  

For the chains—for which we found little price variation from location to location—we averaged the prices at several sample stores and calculated the chains’ price index scores for all their stores. 

Although the area’s independent stores tended to score higher than the big chains for customer satisfaction, none beat Home Depot or Lowe’s for price. We did, however, find a number of independents—including some that rated high on advice and other quality measures—with below-average prices. And prices at local chain Rocky’s Ace Hardware, which received “superior” ratings for “advice” from a respectable 69 percent of its surveyed customers, were about 11 percent below average. 

At many stores, you can save money by asking for a discount. Some independent stores offer a 10 to 15 percent discount on all items when a customer uses a store charge account or the store’s own credit card. Because our price index scores don’t take such discounts into account, such discounts would make those stores’ prices more competitive with the big chains than suggested by the scores on our Ratings Tables

For large projects that will require a lot of equipment and materials, you might be able to get a 10 to 20 percent contractor’s discount at an independent store—but not from the big chains—simply by asking for it. Some stores offer discounts to homeowners who plan to spend over $500—and in some cases even less—over a couple of weeks. Our price index scores don’t reflect such discounts. 

Table 1—Illustrative Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Stores for Some Sample Items
Illustrative Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Stores for Some Sample Items
ItemLow priceAverage priceHigh price
10 single-gang outlet workboxes$5.90$23.45$59.90
Weller 140/100 watt universal soldering gun kit #8200PKS$29.98$39.57$69.99
Eight-ounce tub of Dap vinyl caulking compound$2.25$3.75$5.59
10 15-amp, 125-volt standard residential electrical outlets$5.00$12.01$49.90
Metal caulking gun$2.26$3.93$7.95
32-ounce can of Rust-oleum protective enamel, gloss black$7.94$10.89$15.99
Five one-inch by one-inch metal C-clamps$8.45$12.42$16.95
One-ounce package of Terro liquid ant killer$2.49$3.84$7.99
50 feet of -inch PVC piping$6.70$13.39$37.45
Roll of duct tape (two inches by 60 yards)$1.99$6.78$17.94
Five -inch by two-inch zinc carriage bolts$2.50$3.63$6.45
16-ounce bottle of Elmer’s Wood Glue$3.99$4.95$7.98
1.33-gallon bottle of Roundup Plus weed and grass killer$14.99$19.34$26.99
Swiffer Wetjet starter kit model #32694$19.97$25.37$34.99



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