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Strategic Maneuvers : You can't go charging into a home-improvement store without a battle plan. Those who've spent time in the trenches can lead you to the path of glory.

October 28, 1995|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard and Penny Smith are pretty handy around the house--a good thing, because the couple recently bought one and have been doing landscaping, stonework and electrical and irrigation improvements themselves.

Besides their skills with hammers, trowels and power saws, the Orange residents have also gotten pretty good at navigating the aisles of the local do-it-yourself warehouses.

Still, while unfazed by a ton of bulk slate that must be cut, shaped and mortared into place, the Smiths admit they've been frustrated by the yawning, maze-like interiors and seemingly contradictory stocking policies of the big stores.

"We've left that place in tears more than once," Penny Smith said of Home Depot's Fullerton store, which has been undergoing a massive remodeling.

Chief among complaints about warehouse stores, the Smiths cite mis-marked or unpriced merchandise, stocking policies that make some items hard to find and employees who offer advice about things they shouldn't--or who aren't around to help when needed.

The Smiths aren't alone in their frustration.

A sprawling home-improvement warehouse can be daunting even to a seasoned pro.

But there are ways to get the better of the minds that hide air-conditioning ducts with the water heaters, keep hammers and nails aisles apart and shelve hefty steel bases for porch posts alongside delicate ornamental drawer pulls for kitchen cabinets.

To help you slip in and out of a warehouse store as effortlessly as Tim (The Toolman) Taylor insults sidekick Al Borland on TV's "Home Improvement," The Times asked Mark Baker, merchandising manager of HomeBase Home Improvement Warehouse, and Vince Ingram, store manager for the Home Depot in Orange, to explain the whys and wherefores of their stores' layouts. The secret, they said, is to understand the rationale of how the big stores are laid out and to plan a trip accordingly.

"I see people in here on Saturdays wandering from one side of the store to the other and then back again," Ingram said. "They haven't made a list that is in order, so they spend a lot of time and effort going back and forth. It's a lot more economical to shop from one side of the store to the other."

Reconnaissance

Departmentalization is the key, and logic is similar among the chains.

* Lumber and building materials (such as drywall, concrete, stucco, roofing supplies and bricks) all go together--so do paint, tape, tarps, glues, caulks and scrapers.

* Hand and power tools are usually stocked in the same area, along with accouterments such as saw blades, toolboxes and batteries for cordless tools.

Where each section is depends on the store. But most things are stocked in complementary groups.

Think about how a house is laid out, suggests Baker, also a vice president at HomeBase's Irvine headquarters.

Paint, tile and flooring materials--and the tools to install them--are on adjoining aisles, usually near other interior decor items such as shades, curtain rods, ornamental hardware and wallpaper. Electrical equipment is usually near electrical lighting, and switch covers and dimmer knobs--although technically ornamental hardware--usually are in that section too. They go together in the house.

Stores help keep a lid on prices by minimizing the need for employees to handle goods. So the bulkiest, heaviest stuff is almost always along the sides and in the back: Look for the loading doors on the outside, and near them on the inside is where you'll find bricks, cement, lumber, doors and windows.

"We want to be able to bring it right in and put it on the shelf with a minimum of [employee] fingerprints on it," Baker said.

The stores also want to make sure customers see as many of their wares as possible--so all the tools and materials necessary to complete a job are displayed together whenever possible, Ingram added.

It's that caveat, whenever possible, that drives many do-it-yourselfers nuts.

Battlefield Logic

Building a patio cover requires lumber, but it can also take cement, steel construction bracing, deck screws, nails, saw blades (maybe even a new power saw), hammers, screwdrivers, paint and more.

No store has the space to stock all of that in the same spot. Especially when some of that same stuff is also needed for assembling and installing new cabinets, which are displayed in a completely different part of the store.

Some of the apparent oddities are really rational. Though it might make sense to stock hammers alongside nails, that would leave a big gap in the tool section when someone came in looking for a hammer.

Hammers, first and foremost, are tools--some aren't even made for driving nails--so the tool section is where they stay. And nails would be out of place in tools. So they stay in the hardware-fasteners section, with screws, bolts, washers and related items.

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