Home improvement industry caters to growing numbers of do-it-yourselfers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Home improvement used to be a compartmentalized industry, dominated by professional builders. Makers of, say, planking and windows sold only to "to the trade" stores, which dealt only with contractors. Do-it-yourselfers were shrugged off as dilettantes by everybody and consigned to the hardware store's meager array of wares.

But these days the $106.7 billion home improvement industry is undergoing renovations. Once-antagonistic industry segments -- like insurance companies and contractors, or manufacturers and retail stores -- are cozying up to each other. And retail stores are courting do-it-yourselfers. Across the country, they are building 100,000-square-foot megastores and stocking them with user-friendly tools and materials, all to help fledgling hobbyists become fearless builders.

"People used to believe only a professional could do tiling or install track lighting," said Bernard Marcus, chief executive of Home Depot, the $5 billion, 12-year-old chain generally credited with getting do-it-yourselfers out of the closet. "That's utter nonsense."

The do-it-yourself mania represents a convergence of many trends. Homeowners are fed up with high-priced contractors who do low-quality work.

The distrust of contractors, a lingering recession, and a bulge in the energetic 25-to-40 age group have made do-it-yourselfers a tasty market. Census Bureau data show that last year, the weak economy sparked a 6.2 percent decline, to $37.3 billion, in added rooms and other alterations done by professionals, and a 1.9 percent drop, to $18.1 billion, in replacements like new kitchens. Yet maintenance and repairs, often done by homeowners, increased by 20.2 percent, to $51.3 billion.

"People are spending more time at home, so the home's condition is really important to them," said Jeffrey S. Silverman, chairman of PlyGem Industries Inc., which makes home-improvement products. Added Dickson Clements, an information specialist at the National Association of Home Builders Remodelors Council: "During recessions, the increase is tasks people do themselves."

In the pecking order of home improvement stores, arguments abound about which chains are second or third in popularity and potential. But there is no question who rules.

Home Depot, which operates in 12 states and expects to have 175 stores by year's end, has been vac uuming up its competition's customers like so much sawdust. Several chains, including Channel Home Center, have gone bankrupt. The others are frantically dodging the Home Depot juggernaut.

"Home Depot lit a fire under a lot of people," said Allan T. Kane, the chief executive of Pergament Home Centers Inc., a $350 million chain of 34 stores in New York and New Jersey. Mr. Kane was brought in three months ago to revive flagging profits.

Hechinger Co., a home improvement chain based in Landover, faces competition in the Baltimore-Washington area from Home Depot, which plans to open a store in Glen Burnie Thursday. In defense, Hechinger has begun aggressively revamping its stores into Home Project Centers, which emphasize merchandise selection and competitive prices.

Analysts say the move will help Hechinger, whose earnings have weakened in recent years.

Home Depot's strategy is deceptively simple. It carries only items for which it can be the dominant supplier. It walked away from a profitable $80 million business in unfinished furniture because it could not unseat IKEA as pack leader. And, even though half its customers are women, it doesn't stock non-home repair items that might appeal to them.

Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s merchandise group, whose stores sell $4 billion in hardware items, tools and other home improvement products, is chasing the "buy-it-yourselfers" -- people who hire // installers but select products themselves. Sears stores now have specialists who shepherd customers through displays of kitchens or bathrooms, go to their homes to check out what's needed and arrange for installation. Sears guarantees the contractor's work. William E. Patterson, vice president of home improvement, says Sears has built a $1 billion business out of the buy-it-yourself trend. "Even do-it-yourselfers want professionals to do major remodeling," he said.

Meanwhile, building product manufacturers and retailers alike are redesigning products, rewriting instructions and retraining salespeople, all in hopes of making do-it-yourself home improvement less intimidating.

Since he joined Pergament in February, Mr. Kane has increased the chain's sales staff by 15 percent. He has set up 220 appointments for vendors to explain their products to his salespeople. And, he has set aside $500,000 to train employees in the properties of products and the niceties of service.

Every Home Depot manager gets a one-week training course in store operations. Salespeople take courses on how to sell. They also visit factories and learn about new items via closed-circuit television.

The stores' efforts are minuscule compared with those of manufacturers. Companies that used to make paneling in random lengths, assuming contractors could cut them to size, now sell shrink-wrapped kits of pre-sized wainscoting or panels, with slots and tabs for no-cut assembly.

PlyGem now sells some paneling in 5-foot heights, because the 8-foot lengths were difficult to transport in a car. It is experimenting with paneling that could be attached to walls with hook-and-loop fasteners, and with videotaped instructions.

"Ten years ago we didn't even bother with instruction sheets," said Howard Steinberg, PlyGem's president. "Now our goal is to make it impossible to make a mistake."

Toolmakers have also changed their approach as more and more amateurs wield hammers, screwdrivers and power saws.

A quick quiz will illustrate their new approach.

True or False: Using power tools to drive screws and nails is a good way to prevent hand problems.

True or False: The type of tool you use for a job determines whether you wind up with injuries or sore muscles.

True or False: The art of toolmaking has steadily improved over the years.

The truth of the statements seems intuitively obvious. In fact, all are false. And toolmakers are going back to their drawing boards and word processors to devise safer tools and better instructions.

"They are realizing that a power drill can stall abruptly and cause a whiplash in your hand, or that tool design is not nearly as important as posture when the tool is being used," said Thomas Armstrong, an ergonomics expert at the University of Michigan. Toolmakers of old understood things a lot better, Professor Armstrong says. The long curved handles on antique scythes, the hammer grips tailored to an individual's hand -- all are found in museums, but not in stores.

That may change, though. Companies like Textron, Phillips Screw and RemGrit have come up with new metals or designs for screwdrivers and screws that reduce the physical stress often caused when worn-down or badly designed screwdrivers repeatedly slip out of screw heads. Black & Decker and other power-tool makers have been redesigning drill bits for the same reason.

And all the toolmakers have been rewriting manuals. For example, they will not only show how a person should hold a drill, but also point out that the consumer should drive screws into vertical surfaces at elbow height.

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