Hechinger patrons lose an old friend; 'Regulars' are upset but also say customer service had slipped; Home improvement


Rowena Allen doesn't know where she'll buy her paint, tools, flowers and light fixtures after the end of the year when the Hechinger at North Plaza shuts its doors for good. Maybe Sears.

"I'm very upset. It's been my store," Allen said yesterday while shopping for earplugs at Hechinger, reacting to news of the home-grown Maryland chain closing all 117 stores by year's end. "Home Depot doesn't do it for me."

Like Allen, other shoppers lamented the loss of the warehouse-style hardware and home-improvement stores they've become familiar with, a chain that sprouted from a single store in Washington in 1919.

Because of its convenience to his Parkville home, Jim Lolley had become a regular at the North Plaza Hechinger, near Joppa Road and Perring Parkway, often taking the advice of the gardening department manager as Lolley's Chesapeake Bay retriever, Judge Tucker, rode along in a cart.

More recently, though, "it's gotten to be not staffed as well as it used to be," Lolley said yesterday.

A day after announcing it would shut down and sell its assets rather than continue to restructure under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the Largo-based chain clearly had too few loyal customers left.

Some consumers worried that without Hechinger in the picture, Home Depot Inc. would raise its prices. But others said they had long ago shifted to Home Depot for the bulk of their home-improvement shopping.

The Atlanta-based competitor, now the nation's No. 1 home-improvement retailer, had initially enticed Hechinger customers with lower prices and greater selection.

On Thursday, Hechinger Co. announced plans to close, blaming a decade of intense competition and significant losses for the chain's inability to pull itself from bankruptcy. In its June 11 filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, the privately held company listed $1.3 billion in assets and $1.4 billion in liabilities. The company, which posted a $228.4 million net loss in the quarter that ended April 3, then said it would close 89 stores and convert some of the larger ones to the Home Quarters format, featuring improved service and selection.

But retail analysts and consultants had held out little hope for a recovery in what they said is fast evolving into a duopoly in the home-improvement industry between Home Depot and Lowe's Cos. Inc.

Yesterday, shoppers such as Gabriel Balogh, a massage therapist from Hamilton, flocked to Hechinger hoping for markdowns and extra sales. Balogh wandered the store in search of a "drip edge" for his roof, but had trouble finding someone to help him.

Such personnel shortages have proved frustrating, and not only to customers. Francis Ford, a part-time kitchen designer who has worked at Hechinger for a year and a half, said he believed the chain has competed on prices, and even stocks much of the same merchandise as its rivals. He blamed the chain's downfall on a shortage of employees.

"There was not enough help, period," he said. Ford said that often, while helping customers with kitchen projects, he would be interrupted by other customers. "Four times a day I'd hear, 'Can you help me? There's no help in the store.' They were never willing to hire more help."

But other customers suggested that the problem could have been one of image -- when it comes time to shop for home-remodeling projects, they think Home Depot.

"I've been to Hechinger probably twice -- and only went there when it was a crowded holiday here and and you couldn't get in and out," said David Wagoner, a pharmaceutical salesman from Lutherville who was seeking a drain pipe part at the Home Depot on the other side of Joppa Road. "They know their stuff here," he said.

Sean Flynn, a spokesman for Hechinger, said its liquidation sale is "scheduled to begin in the next couple of weeks."

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