Our ratings of hardware stores, shown on our Ratings Tables, show how
Twin Cities area stores stack up for quality and price.
For prices, Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, and Mills Fleet Farm 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 more than 10 percent below the all-store average for
items we checked, while prices at others were more than 15 percent above
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,
Lowes, Menards, and Mills Fleet Farm fall well short on some key service
fronts. In our surveys of area consumers, at the time of our last full,
published article, Menards received superior ratings for quality of advice
from only 30 percent of its surveyed customers, Home Depot and Mills Fleet
Farm from only 35 percent, and Lowes from only 48 percent. In contrast,
a number of independent stores throughout the Twin Cities area received
superior ratings for advice from more than 80 percent of their surveyed
customers. Keep in mind that even at top-rated stores you may have to seek
out the best-informed staff members.
Countersinks and awls. T-joints and GFIs. Acrylics and urethanes. Mortises
and escutcheons. All Greek to you? If youre like most of us, when you
need to do a home repair you need help. Pick the right hardware store and
youll get a lot of it; pick wrong and youll walk out more dazed and confused
than when you walked in. Our ratings of Twin Cities area stores for quality
and price, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find the right
place to start.
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 Twin Cities area meet the challenge
and receive rave reviews, like the following from surveyed customers
Knowledgeable staff can help with almost every problem.
While they cant 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 deceivingthey 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 dont, they will get it for you.
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 Im 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 cant keep up with the
best. For these stores, consumers lament
Cant find help when needed. They cant find products in their own store.
Customer service is typically discourteous.
Staff stretched thin and not well trained. Some can be outstanding, but
its 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
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 Twin Cities 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 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. (For more information on our
customer survey and other research methods, click here.)
As you can see from our Ratings Tables, to get good advice and the
best staff attitudesthe two service features hardware store customers
care most aboutyoull likely have to turn to an independent store; most
of the chains received, on average, relatively poor ratings on these features.
At the time of our last full, published article, Menards was rated superior
for quality of advice by only 30 percent of its surveyed customers, Home
Depot and Mills Fleet Farm by only 35 percent, and Lowes by only 48 percent.
That compares unfavorably to the numerous independent stores throughout
the Twin Cities area that were rated superior for advice by more than
80 percent of their surveyed customers.
Among the areas 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
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 simply askingfor 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 doesnt 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.
In contrast to their low ratings for quality of advice, Home Depot, Lowes,
Menards, and Mills Fleet Farm 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 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.
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 stores 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 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 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 stores price index score, reported
on our Ratings Tables. Our price index scores are intended to show
how a stores 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 chainsfor which we found little price variation from location
to locationwe averaged the prices at several sample stores and calculated
the chains price index 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, Lowes, Menards,
or Mills Fleet Farm for price. We did, however, find a number of independentsincluding
some that rated high on advice and other quality measureswith 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 stores own credit card. Because our price
index scores dont 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 contractors discount at an
independent storebut not from the big chainssimply by asking for it.
Some stores offer discounts to homeowners who plan to spend over $500and
in some cases even lessover a couple of weeks. Our price index scores
dont reflect such discounts.
Table 1Illustrative Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Stores for
Some Sample Items
|Item||Low price||Average price||High price|
|10 single-gang outlet workboxes||$7.50||$24.34||$39.90|
|Weller 140/100 watt universal soldering gun kit #8200PKS||$19.99||$40.36||$54.99|
|Eight-ounce tub of Dap vinyl caulking compound||$1.99||$3.79||$4.99|
|10 15-amp, 125-volt standard residential electrical outlets||$3.80||$9.35||$29.90|
|Metal caulking gun||$1.59||$3.86||$6.99|
|32-ounce can of Rust-oleum protective enamel, gloss black||$8.18||$10.79||$15.99|
|Five one-inch by one-inch metal C-clamps||$4.90||$13.34||$17.50|
|One-ounce package of Terro liquid ant killer||$2.79||$3.68||$5.67|
|50 feet of -inch PVC piping||$6.30||$12.71||$24.95|
|Roll of duct tape (two inches by 60 yards)||$2.49||$6.14||$9.49|
|Five -inch by two-inch zinc carriage bolts||$1.25||$3.60||$4.90|
|16-ounce bottle of Elmer’s Wood Glue||$3.67||$5.58||$11.96|
|1.33-gallon bottle of Roundup Plus weed and grass killer||$14.98||$18.28||$29.99|
|Swiffer Wetjet starter kit model #32694||$16.86||$24.99||$37.99|