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Customers take Home Depot down a notch

Cynthia Seay was a longtime Home Depot regular until she decided last fall that the line to buy paint was just too long. So she marched across the street to Lowe's where she now shops more often.

"Something changed at Home Depot in the last year," said the St. Petersburg housewife who's studying for her real estate license.

"It's harder to find sales people, especially somebody who knows anything about the products."

It's a common theme that sticks out in a national barometer of customer satisfaction being released today. Home Depot's rating dropped 8.2 percent in one year to a 67 in the annual University of Michigan Customer Satisfaction Index ratings. That's well below the average of 74 for stores of its type. And it's dramatically below rival Lowe's rating of 78, which rose 2.6 percent.

Home Depot counters with surveys of its own and others to insist it has successfully used technology such as self-service checkouts to bolster staffing on the sales floor.

But the latest Michigan survey suggests customers feel just the opposite.

"Clearly this is evidence that Home Depot's use of technology to free up more sales help does not square with the customers' experience," said Claes Fornell, director of the Michigan business school's quality research institute.

"That perception probably will change as people get used to dealing with more self-service like they have with ATMs and self-service gas pumps," added Jack West, past president of the American Society for Quality. "I think Home Depot just got ahead of where their customer is in dealing with technology today."

Fornell was criticized in 2003 when he admitted taking a short position in Home Depot stock before the release of his study noted that Home Depot's customer satisfaction rating dropped for the first time.

Fornell, who had invested in the idea that Home Depot shares price would decline, said he stopped trading in stocks of companies he rates.

Customer satisfaction with the nation's biggest retail chains slipped slightly in 2005 to a 72.4. That's down 4.4 percent in the past decade. Pricing is the biggest factor in customer attitudes about stores. So experts cite rising energy prices for the outcome as well as technology to cut costs.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sppimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

WHAT THE CUSTOMERS THINK

Shoppers gave strong, improving marks to Lowe's while Home Depot fell significantly last year in a national measure of customer satisfaction. Here's a sampling of some rivals:

Chain Rating

+ Change from 2004

Home Depot 67 -8.2 percent

Lowe's 78

+2.6 percent

Target 78

+4 percent

Wal-Mart 70 -1.4 percent

Publix 81 No change

Winn-Dixie 73

+1.4 percent

Albertsons 71

+2.9 percent

Circuit City 70 -2.8 percent

Best Buy 71 -1.4 percent

+ The ratings are based on surveys given to 16,000 shoppers covering everything from pricing to customer service.

Source: 2005 University of Michigan customer satisfaction index

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