Not everyone is handy. There’s no shame in it: When you need to do a home repair, you need some help. Meaning you hope your trip to the hardware store doesn’t morph into its usual five trips to the hardware store.

Good hardware stores cater to all points on the handiness spectrum, offering up an Aladdin’s cave of tools and supplies plus advice on how to best use them. Unfortunately, you will probably pay more for that help. The nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of 113 Twin Cities area stores reveal that while chains Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards and Mills Fleet Farm charge low prices, they generally also offer subpar advice and customer service.

Until Aug. 5, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area hardware stores to StarTribune readers via this link: checkbook.org/StarTribune/HardwareStores.

To compare prices at area stores, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers checked prices for 19 items and found Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards and Mills Fleet Farm beat all the independents and other chains. Menards’ prices averaged about 41 percent less than the all-store average, Lowe’s prices averaged 26 percent lower than average, Home Depot’s 25 percent lower, and Mills Fleet Farm’s were 17 percent below average. But Checkbook’s price survey did find below-average prices at several area independent stores.

At some stores, you can save money just by asking for a discount. Some independent stores offer 10 to 15 percent discounts to customers who use a store charge account or the store’s own credit card. Because our price-comparison scores don’t take such discounts into consideration, these discounts would make those stores’ prices more competitive with the big chains.

For large projects that require a lot of equipment and materials, you might get a 5 to 15 percent contractor’s discount from an independent store — but not from the big chains — merely by requesting it. Some stores offer discounts to homeowners who plan to spend more than $500 — and in some cases even less — over a couple of weeks.

For many customers, price is just part of the deal: They also crave good advice and customer service. Running a top-notch hardware store starts with recruiting well-informed, helpful staff. Because the best hardware store salespeople must possess the knowledge of plumbers, painters, electricians, roofers, landscapers, carpenters and a dozen other tradespeople, finding and retaining a cadre of these professional know-it-alls is not easy. In addition, top hardware stores somehow manage to stock just about everything their customers need, and organize this amazing jumble of products so shoppers and staff can find them.

To evaluate Twin Cities area stores for service quality, Checkbook surveyed local consumers (Checkbook and Consumer Reports subscribers plus other randomly selected individuals). Unfortunately, price leaders Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menards and Mills Fleet Farm fall well short on some key service fronts. In these surveys of area consumers, Menards received “superior” ratings for quality of advice from only 35 percent of its surveyed customers, Mills Fleet Farm from only 41 percent, Home Depot from only 43 percent and Lowe’s from only 48 percent. In contrast, a number of independent stores throughout the Twin Cities area received “superior” ratings for advice from more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers.

Among the area’s many Ace and True Value stores, Checkbook found no consistent pattern in ratings for advice or other aspects of service. That is not surprising since Ace and True Value are buying cooperatives for independent stores that impose no performance standards or specific operating procedures on affiliates.

Before buying items at a hardware store, find out about its return policy. A liberal policy is important because it’s easy to miscalculate the volume of paint, number of nails, or type of hinges a job needs. If you buy materials for a project ahead of time, it may be months before you realize that you have too much, the wrong thing, or a defective product. It helps to buy from a store that willingly accepts returns.

Fortunately, Checkbook found return practices at most hardware stores are remarkably liberal. Almost all retailers offer a full refund on returns for an indefinite period — as long as the customer presents a receipt and the item can be resold. And managers whose stores’ stated policies impose time limits and proof of purchase requirements indicate that, in practice, they are often much more flexible. Even if a sign over the checkout counter says “No returns after 30 days,” the store might offer regular customers a refund on merchandise purchased more than a year before. Some stores even offer refunds to regular customers who have no receipts and even if the items have no price tags.

 

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.