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Lowe's or Home Depot

Do-it-yourself season is that time of year when you suddenly feel compelled to organize the garage, do something about your outdated kitchen, build a deck, or apply a fresh coat of paint. Whatever the project or task may be, chances are you'll check the offerings at Lowe's and/or Home Depot. Cheapism sent a researcher to outposts of both hardware giants to determine which offers the better value for your limited renovation dollars. These big-box bigwigs are highly successful and fiercely competitive, making it impossible to pick a winner based on the cost of merchandise alone. Although prices at Home Depot and Lowe's sometimes fluctuate, they're often exactly the same, and the differences we noted typically were slight. In the end, the service and overall experience we got for our money earned Lowe's the title of value champ.

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.

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.

Prices

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: When pricing a deck project Lowe's won by $34.24 -- 2% less than Home Depot. In our shopping cart test Lowe's eked out a win, with the total ($1,924.08) coming in a mere $1.27 less than at Home Depot ($1,925.35).

LOWE'S
$1,507.32
Prices
$1,541.56

Selection

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: In 5 of the 8 categories we chose, Lowe's featured more overall SKUs than Home Depot, securing it a small advantage.

LOWE'S
More choices when it comes to electric ranges, single-hung windows, towel bars, and more

HOME DEPOT

More options in categories including glass backsplash tile, toilets, and ceramic floor tiles

Experience

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: Statistical information and user reviews back up our impression that Lowe's is more approachable for the everyday buyer. Read more: http://www.cheapism.com/lowes-or-home-depot#ixzz485PPCY6l

LOWE'S


Lowe's felt more comfortable for an average DIYer.

HOME DEPOT
Home Depot wasn't as welcoming to the average buyer but had no-nonsense appeal for the pro and expert.

Store Organization

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: Though we give the win to Lowe's, organization likely varies store by store.

LOWE'S
Aisles seemed wider, displays cleaner, and price tags more consistent and easier to read.

HOME DEPOT
Some aisles seemed crowded due to displays, and pricing wasn't as clearly marked.

Customer Service

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: Lowe's associates were more proactive about offering help and followed up more frequently.

LOWE'S
Six associates approached us a total of 10 times to ask if we needed help.

HOME DEPOT

Four employees offered assistance, and another two helped us when we asked.

Catering to Pros

Winner: HOME DEPOT

Why: Lowe's is narrowing the gap, but in this area, Home Depot still holds the advantage.

HOME DEPOT

Home Depot traditionally offers pros more perks.

LOWE'S

Lowe's appears geared more toward the average homeowner than the pro.

Project Support

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: Lowe's offered more experienced advisers and slicker computer programs, such as a deck design tool.

LOWE'S

Project support specialists were more seasoned and knowledgeable overall.

HOME DEPOT

Project support associates appeared less organized; one employee we dealt with was inexperienced.

Workshops

Winner: HOME DEPOT

Why: Home Depot wins, hands down, for well-planned and useful workshops.

HOME DEPOT

Holds a consistent program of DIY classes each weekend

LOWE'S

None are offered, though associates will demo techniques upon request.

Return Policy

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: Home Depot may allow employees to use their discretion on returns, but the official policy is stricter than at Lowe's.

LOWE'S
90 days for new and unused merchandise, 90 days for damaged or defective items. Lowe's can process returns without a receipt using a credit card or phone number.

HOME DEPOT
90 days for new and unused items, 30 days for damaged or defective merchandise; receipt required.

Tool Rental

Winner: LOWE'S

Why: While our local Home Depot doesn't have tool rental, most locations do, giving shoppers a nice alternative to purchasing power tools.

LOWE'S


Lowe's doesn't rent tools, with the exception of carpet cleaners.

HOME DEPOT

Home Depot rents a wide variety of large power tools, though availability varies by location.

Credit Cards

LOWE'S

Issued by GE Capital Retail Bank

HOME DEPOT

Issued by Citibank

Gina Martinez

Gina Martinez is a freelance writer who teaches college-level composition and literature courses and has an M.A. in English. She lives on the cheap in New York City with her majestic lapdog.

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