Some DIYers are intent on patronizing their local lumberyard and hardware store to the exclusion of Lowe's and Home Depot (or because they don't have one of these big box stores near by). But it's that very combination--hardware store and lumberyard--that show the value of Home Depot and Lowe's. They combine the two stores in one: less running around.
Whatever they are, these big box home improvement stores are like the air that you breathe as a remodeler. First, it helps to back up and look at where these stores came from:
The Home Depot: The Only Game in TownThe Home Depot, founded in 1978, didn't catch on right away. It was a novel concept begun by two men who, without irony, can be called visionary. Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank set up two Home Depot stores in Atlanta, GA, each around 60,000 square ft. They wanted to combine the hardware store and lumberyard. Unlike traditional contractor-dominated stores, they wanted to serve the do-it-yourself homeowner. And they wanted to provide actual customer service. As Marcus says in Built from Scratch (wedding two shop-worn cliches): "At the end of the day, we're in the people business."
Trivia: because those first two Home Depot stores didn't have enough merchandise to fill out the store, they filled the stores with empty boxes at the higher reaches of the shelves.
Lowe's: Killing Home Depot in the "Niceness" CategoryLowe's was actually started before Home Depot (1946 in North Carolina), but they came after Home Depot in the big box store format.
But Lowe's shot past Home Depot in the early 1990s by instituting something that Home Depot hadn't considered: a friendlier atmosphere for both men and women. Unlike Home Depot, aisles were widened; lighting increased; appliances added; and most importantly, stores were kept clean.
Soon the lines were drawn: Home Depot was the "serious" place for things like plumbing pipe; Lowe's was the "pretty" place for things like window coverings.
Lowe's or Home Depot: Breaking It DownFollowing is the feedback I have received over the years of writing about home remodeling.
Lowe's and Home Depot stores in proximity to each other engage in competitive pricing. While you may buy cheaper drywall at Lowe's one week, it may be cheaper the next week at Home Depot.
A Washington Post commentator (linked below) notes that she feels that Lowe's overall has slightly better prices.
Customer ServiceHome Depot.
Understand this: Neither store has the type of knowledgeable staff you will find at a real supply house for industry pros. But the consensus is that Home Depot tends to have a more experienced staff. As far as friendliness, both appear to be about the same.
Product SelectionHome Depot.
The way to view this is by house and exclusive brands. Each store has brands that only they carry. Lowe's has Kobalt and Task Force branded tools, both decent but not amazing. It also carries Utilitech lighting, which I have found to be unsatisfactory. But Home Depot has BEHR and Martha Stewart paints. And Martha Stewart's line at Home Depot has recently expanded beyond paint. It carries Ryobi tools, extensively covered in our tool guides. It also carries RIDGID, not an especially high-quality brand but typically the cheapest way to some tools such as wet tile saws.
Home Depot still appears to be playing catch-up with Lowe's in terms of store atmosphere. By atmosphere, we're talking about lighting, width of aisles, cleanliness, keeping areas stocked and organized, etc.