New Breed of Do-It-Yourselfers Stop at the Shopping Stage, Let Pros Do the Spackling

Wheeling down the aisle at The Home Depot with several hundred pounds of grout and a collection of door knobs and hinges in his cart, Victor Belfry embodies a major shift under way in the home improvement market. He's what analysts call a B-I-Yer, a Buy-It-Yourselfer.

"I buy whatever I like, then I have someone who's knowledgeable and trained install it," says Mr. Belfry of Guttenberg, N.J. "I save money, and I know it's going to be done the way I like it."

The $96 billion dollar home improvement market is continuing its steady, apparently inexorable growth in America - up almost 7 percent from last year. But Buy-it-Yourselfers may be the answer to the potential demographic crisis facing the industry as baby-boomers, fuel for the explosion in the do-it-yourself market, get older.

"Yuppies are turning into Woofers - well-off and over fifty" says Greg Brooks, editor of ProSales, the construction supply industry's leading trade magazine. "They're still deeply involved in their projects, but they don't pound the nails."

During the last 20 years, large low-cost hardware and lumber retailers like The Home Depot and Lowe's Cos. didn't just tap into the do-it-yourself market, they nurtured it. They demystified the contractor's realm by providing home-improvement classes along with low prices and staffs ready to answer any question, from how to fix a leaky faucet to the best way to install new kitchen counters.

And Americans responded. A survey done by the Home Improvement Research Institute, an industry-financed think tank in Lincolnshire, Ill., found that 87 percent of homeowners undertook a do-it-yourself project or purchase in the last year.

But the market is changing. Chain stores were able to thrive in part because plenty of places hadn't gotten a taste of their consumer-oriented hardware style. But most major markets now have at least one giant hardware chain store. And, Mr. Brooks says, with customers getting older, the do-it-yourself market "has reached its peak."

The Home Depot disagrees, noting that the children of its original customers have grown up watching and helping their parents work around the house, and many are now buying starter homes. It also contends that the Do-It-Yourselfers are maturing not just in age, but in sophistication.

"A lot of them think, 'Now that I've tiled my kitchen, maybe I can put an addition on my home, that doesn't look so hard,' " says Katrina Blauvelt, spokeswoman for The Home Depot, which is based in Atlanta.

Ms. Blauvelt says the company is also looking to broaden its appeal to professional contractors. With an estimated $220 billion dollar market, it could help the chain keep up its impressive rate of growth. Taking a cue from its competitor Lowe's Cos., which already gets about 20 percent of its revenues from professionals, some Home Depots have already set up special check-out sections so contractors won't have to wait in long lines.

But companies would be wise to capitalize on the growing buy-it-yourself market, says Eric Belsky, a researcher at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing.

He suggests chains should begin offering "installed sales." Consumers would buy the materials for their project and then hire a store-approved contractor on the spot to do the work. "One of the most problematic things in the whole industry is the labor side of it, getting people into your home who you are comfortable with," Mr. Belsky says.

"If you feel like there's a corporate entity behind that person, there's an element of trust. But you also know there's someone else to complain to if you're not satisfied with the work. I think there's a real potential for large organizations to get into this market."

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