Hardware stores are meccas to devoted DIYers, the spots to both stock up on tools, supplies, and—at the best ones—get better advice than you’ll find in any YouTube video. But finding the best stores to collect what you need can be a project itself, no matter how easy HGTV makes it seem. While big chains (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards) may offer low prices, our ratings of Chicago area retailers suggest they often offer subpar advice and customer service. Fortunately, we found many other stores have helpful staff and offer reasonable prices.

Our Price Checks

To compare prices at area stores, our undercover shoppers checked prices for 20 items at the Chicago area stores listed on our Ratings Tables (these are the stores for which we received at least 10 ratings on our surveys of consumers, described below).

We used those prices to calculate each store’s or chain’s price comparison score, reported on our Ratings Tables. These scores show how a store’s 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 prices, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards beat all of the independents and other chains. Menards’ prices averaged about 39 percent less than the all-store average, Home Depot’s prices averaged 27 percent lower than average, and Lowe’s were 20 percent lower. But our price survey did find below-average prices at several other area stores.

At some stores, you can save money just by asking for a discount. Some independent stores offer 10 to 15 percent discounts to customers who use a store charge account or the store’s own credit card. Because our price comparison scores don’t take such discounts into consideration, 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 five to 15 percent contractor’s discount from an independent store—but not from the big chains—merely by requesting it. Some stores offer discounts to homeowners who plan to spend over $1,000—and in some cases even less—over a couple of weeks. Our price comparison scores don’t reflect such discounts.

How to Get Good Advice

For many customers, price is just part of the deal: They also want good advice, help finding what they need, and customer service. Running a top-notch hardware store starts with recruiting well-informed, helpful staff. Because the best hardware store salespeople 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 not easy. In addition, top hardware stores somehow manage to stock just about everything their customers need, and to organize this amazing jumble of products so shoppers and staff can find them.

To evaluate area stores for service quality, we asked area consumers to rate stores they’ve used as “inferior,” “adequate,” or “superior” on several questions, 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.” For stores that received at least 10 ratings, our Ratings Tables shows the percent of customers who rated each store “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on each question. For large chains, we also report scores from ratings submitted by consumers in the seven metro areas where we publish Checkbook. Click here for more on our customer survey and other research methods.

Unfortunately, price leaders Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Menards fall well short on some key service fronts. In our surveys of consumers, Home Depot received “superior” ratings for quality of advice from only 33 percent of its surveyed customers, Lowe’s from only 39 percent, and Menards from only 43 percent. In contrast, several independent stores throughout the Chicago area received “superior” ratings for advice from at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers.

Among the area’s many Ace and True Value stores, there’s 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 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 asking questions—for example, “Who knows the most about plumbing?”

In contrast to their low ratings for quality of advice, the big national chains scored better when we asked their customers about 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 having a wide 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 topics like landscaping, floor installation, and cabinet installation. And of the many places you can rent tools, your local hardware store is probably the most convenient.

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Review Return Policies

It’s important to buy from hardware stores with liberal return policies. It’s easy to miscalculate the volume of paint, number of nails, or type of hinges a job needs. And 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 store that willingly accepts returns.

From the store’s 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 purposes, now prepackage many items formerly 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 offer full refunds on returns for indefinite periods—as long as customers present receipts and items 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.