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Lowe's or Home Depot

Consistency from location to location may be a hallmark of retail chains, but a certain amount of variation -- due to store personnel, store size, local market preferences -- is inevitable. That said, we did our best to compare the Lowe's and Home Depot outposts in one major metropolitan area by visiting each store three times at different times of day.

We made our trips during the week and on the weekend and evaluated the customer service experiences as a whole instead of on a per-visit basis. To compare prices, we drew up a select list of items that were the same at each retailer or as similar as possible. We chose one large project -- a deck -- to price out component by component for the big-picture view. Lastly, we sought the opinions of experts and of shoppers from a variety of locales, with online postings serving as our source. The totality of the evidence led us to a clear conclusion but also highlighted how effectively these home improvement titans compete.

The aisles at Lowe's were easy to navigate.

Overall, prices were cheaper at Lowe's by mere pocket change. The pre-tax total for the 39 items on our general shopping list was $1,924.08 at Lowe's compared with $1,925.35 at Home Depot. When pricing out the deck project, Lowe's again proved cheaper: $1,507.32 versus $1,542.56 at Home Depot. In percentage terms, however, the price differential on some items (same products but often different brands) was substantial. For example, a 16-ounce steel claw hammer with a $4.98 price tag at Lowe's was more than 40% cheaper than the $6.99 version at Home Depot. For a one-off purchase of a small item, such price differences may not matter much (given the price of gas, you may decide it isn't worth driving farther to the store with the cheaper merchandise just to save a couple of dollars). But if you're working on a project that calls for multiple pieces of a given part -- tiles, say -- a price difference counted in pennies quickly adds up.

Home Depot's free clinics are popular.

Although we had positive experiences at both stores, sales associates at Lowe's seemed more experienced and provided more explanation than their Home Depot counterparts. Project support offerings, such as the Lowe's Deck Design Software, were more sophisticated and we were less often led astray. Additionally, it was far easier to locate and price out merchandise at Lowe's, where the aisles were more spacious and simpler to navigate. We found Home Depot's maze of shelves overwhelming, with haphazard pricing signage and product organization.

Home Depot offers some distinct advantages, however. For one, Home Depot regularly holds free weekend workshops designed to familiarize DIYers with basic home improvement projects, such as installing a faucet or painting a room. Lowe's offers nothing comparable, although associates will demonstrate techniques upon request and online video walkthroughs and project manuals are available on the company website. Tool rental is another point of differentiation. Most Home Depot locations rent a variety of power tools, such as tile saws and floor strippers; Lowe's does not provide this service.

Roger Saunders, a marketing expert, extrapolates market research data that echo some of our findings. In a recent Retail Wire discussion, he comments that Home Depot wins with consumers in the areas of store location, project tips, and knowledgeable store associates. (In our visits to both retailers, we found Lowe's associates to be more knowledgeable.) Lowe's, he continues, comes out ahead in service, overall store experience, and product selection and quality.

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In short, Home Depot and Lowe's are both good home improvement resources for the average consumer, and sometimes even for the pro. Each retailer is relatively easy to find; Home Depot operates more than 1,900 stores in the U.S. to Lowe's 1,725-plus locations in North America. But at the end of the day, your experience will depend on what you're looking for and on the way your local store is stocked, staffed, and managed.

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