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In Vermont, small shops beat Home Depot in customer battle

Wayne St. John (left) of the family-run Fireside True Value sold a lawn tractor last week to David Dunn of Dummerston. Wayne St. John (left) of the family-run Fireside True Value sold a lawn tractor last week to David Dunn of Dummerston. (Jason R. Henske/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Curran
Associated Press / May 4, 2008

BRATTLEBORO - When a Home Depot set up shop across the street, Fireside True Value hardware store owner Wayne St. John knew it would probably take some of his customers away.

He and his brothers, who've operated their store for 35 years, had heard the stories about big-box stores and their low prices driving competitors into the ground.

So the store stuck to what it does best - good customer service, competitive prices, and a willingness to stock the hard-to-find parts that folks never seemed to find at the big building with the orange roof.

Four years later, it's Fireside True Value that's still standing.

"I've had a lot of customers come in and say 'You guys put them under,' " said St. John.

In truth, many factors played a role in the closing of Home Depot store No. 4552 and in the Atlanta-based home improvement giant's decision to close 14 other "underperforming" stores whose annual sales averaged about $11 million, far below the $36 million desired by the company.

Among them: Opposition from grass-roots groups that succeed in stirring up boycotts and bad publicity even when they don't stop the stores from opening.

"We've seen big-box stores defeated in over 200 communities in the last two years," said Stacy Mitchell, author of "Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses."

"Campaigns are proliferating and even if they don't succeed, the public education they do often has a significant impact on people's shopping choices after the store opens," Mitchell said.

In Brattleboro, an artsy southern Vermont town (pop. 11,741) known for its left-leaning sensibilities, Home Depot was a public enemy before it even opened the store in a former Ames department store 1 1/2 miles from downtown.

Small by Home Depot standards at 60,000 square feet, it was sandwiched in between two other Home Depots - one across the river in Keene, N.H., the other in nearby Greenfield, Mass. - both within a 30-minute drive.

BrattPower, a citizens' group, fought to keep the home improvement retailer out, saying its bargain prices and sheer size would siphon business from local businesses.

"This is not an orange-blooded town," said Al Norman, an antisprawl activist who has spearheaded campaigns against Wal-Mart and Home Depot in dozens of communities.

"Yes, it's a bad housing market. Yes, it was a bad location. Yes, it was a small location. But it was also in hostile territory."

Loyalty to existing businesses also played a role.

Brown & Roberts, a family-operated Ace Hardware store downtown beloved by locals for its creaky wooden floors, peg-board displays, and attentive personal service, couldn't compete with Home Depot's prices on some products, but many customers continued going there anyway.

"That first year, business was flat," said manager Paul Putnam, 59, who runs it along with seven other family members.

"We haven't had a banner year in their four years here, but we've managed to make it. Good customer service, having friendly, knowledgeable employees, that's always been our strong point."

Neither store changed its merchandising strategy or price structure to compete with the new store in town, believing that customers would stick with them. For the most part, they did.

Home Depot spokeswoman Jean Niemi wouldn't comment on the common traits shared by the towns where the stores will be closed. She said the lackluster sales were the bottom line.

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