With a new store making its official debut tomorrow, Landover-based Hechinger Co. is facing competition by altering its sales strategy.
In the process, the chain is begging an essential question in the home-improvement market: Is it a warehouse or isn't it?
Hechinger's newly renovated store, located in Glen Burnie along Ritchie Highway near the state Motor Vehicle Administration headquarters, certainly has taken on some of the qualities of a warehouse establishment.
The aisles have been widened, the suspended ceilings have been removed to make room for higher shelves, and the shelves -- like warehouse stores -- have been stacked with what looks like more merchandise than the standard Hechinger's has carried.
Unlike many warehouse stores, however, the interior is bright and laid out so that shoppers should be able to find what they need. Much of the store has been divided into four "project" areas where the do-it-yourselfer can get everything needed for major home-improvement jobs on the kitchen, bath, deck or garden. Chief executive officer John W. Hechinger Jr. calls the new design "user-friendly," and says it eventually will be duplicated in all 87 Hechinger outlets.
Signs have been made many times larger to help customers find the area they want. And displays of such things as windows, kitchen counters, bath tubs and doors are more elaborate than displays at the traditional Hechinger.
Andy Doyle and son Mike had their first exposure to the new Hechinger design as customers Wednesday night. The elder Doyle, who said he considered himself a Hechinger regular, basically liked what he saw.
"Right now, it's a lot nicer," he said. "But its a pain because I can't figure out where anything is anymore."
Son Mike, however, said he noticed a change in service at the store. "There are a lot more people now to help you than you have customers. And they go out of their way to help you."
The question of whether the new design attempts to create a warehouse has added significance now because Hechinger's will be facing new competition this summer when Home Depot, the popular Atlanta-based retailer, opens its first building materials warehouse in the Baltimore area. The new Home Depot will be less than a mile from Hechinger's Glen Burnie store.
Both chains will be vying for patronage from avid do-it-yourselfers -- customers Hechinger officials say they already have in this area and Home Depot officials say they want to take away.
Industry analysts say Home Depot, which is planning four stores in the Baltimore area by 1993, will be formidable competition for Hechinger's precisely because, with more than 100,000 square feet of floor space, it is a warehouse.
"For Home Depot, size, volume and pricing are what's made it successful," said Michael L. Mean, a home center store watcher for Legg Mason. "Home Depot can stock the merchandise and sell it at discount prices."
Conversely, said Mead, Hechinger's biggest obstacle -- floor space of about 60,000 square feet in most stores -- will make competing with Home Depot tough.
"The [Hechinger] box is just too small," explained Mead. "I expect [the Glen Burnie store] to be made significantly more attractive. But this is a remodeling, this is not a warehouse store."
For their part, Hechinger officials say the Glen Burnie store incorporates several retailing concepts, but no one is calling it a warehouse.
"Whether they call something a warehouse or not, doesn't matter," said CEO Hechinger. "The important thing is that customers can find the product, get it at the right price, and there's somebody there who can tell them how to use it."
And Hechinger insists the Glen Burnie store renovations have nothing to do with Home Depot, adding that the changes were the culmination of two years of formal and informal customer surveys.
"You really can't run a business reacting to the competition," said Hechinger. "The way we're running our business is responding to what the customer wants."
A Hechinger spokeswoman, Carolyn Bodie, said the company has gone beyond the warehouse concept with its new design. "But a lot of people who shop warehouses are going to like this, too," she said.
The new design makes it appear the store is carrying a larger stock than before. But Bodie noted that much of the merchandise now stacked on shelves within view was in the store but kept in stockrooms.
Although the overall volume of merchandise is about the same, Bodie said, the new store does carry more merchandise in the four project areas and less in other areas, de-emphasizing softer goods.
Still, the scope of goods carried by Hechinger's is likely to be larger than carried at Home Depot.
Hechinger officials are hoping that gives them an advantage. Said Hechinger, "We intend to offer the largest and broadest selection in the region" and at the "best prices."
At Home Depot, where the company promises to carry everything needed to build a house from scratch, the company stock tends toward basic construction and home-improvement merchandise, said Lonnie Fogle, a Home Depot spokesman.
For example, Home Depot recently stopped selling unfinished and unassembled furniture in its stores because it could not stock a "dominate assortment of goods," which made it impossible to compete with retailers such as IKEA, Fogle said.
But in the product categories Home Depot does carry, its floor space allows it to carry lots, often at substantially reduced prices.
One area where both companies appear to be placing equal stress is customer service.
Nationally, Home Depot has developed a reputation for experienced employees. Fogel said Home Depot pays a premium for qualified labor and has a reputation for hiring former contractors, construction workers and senior citizens with experience in home improvement.
At the new Hechinger's, company officials say the employees are veteran home-improvement specialists, each with more than seven years' experience. And the employees have been told to approach customers and offer help, which they were doing on a reporter's visit to the Glen Burnie store this week.
Also, Hechinger has instituted a new concept at the Glen Burnie operation, hiring a C.O. Manager. The initials stand for customer obsession, and the manager has the responsibility of fielding customer complaints and questions.
All of this may make little difference when it comes to who wins the hardware store wars.
"The industry has moved much more toward pricing being the real key in the business," said analyst Mead. "Selection and service have become a given, but pricing has become the paramount feature."