Making history, learning from it

On page 134 In the Aug. 13, 1984, issue of National Home Center News, Duncan Building Material Warehouse in New Tazewell, Tenn., is shown in all its rugged glory.

It might not look like much. But the photo is attached to an article in which the store’s owner describes the enterprise as the home center industry’s very first warehouse store. It was opened in 1974, beating Home Depot to the punch by a full five years.

Here’s a question: Doesn’t this groundbreaking story deserve a more prominent placement than page 134?

One would think so. But the amazing thing is that the 1980s were so full of groundbreaking stories that editors had little problem filling 133 pages with copy that sings to this day.

It was the Golden Age of home center retailing. It was also a high-stakes battle for sales, traffic, profit and business survival.

What forces shaped the landscape and determine the winners and losers? And what are the lessons learned for today’s home improvement business?

These are questions that will be addressed during an upcoming presentation at the Home Improvement Research Institute’s (HIRI’s) Fall Conference in Chicago Oct. 17. One of the day’s presentations, “Lesson’s Learned from the Revolution,” will be delivered by an actual editor of Home Channel News.

Let’s face it. Duncan never had a chance to grow into a dominant player. But many others could have. In fact, they fully expected to. Builders Square was backed by big money from Kmart Corp. Wickes once had not one, but two separate business units in the top 10 list — at the same time (Wickes and Wickes Lumber). At the top of the scoreboard during much of the Golden Age was Payless Cashways, a fierce competitor and a highly respected operator.

And then there’s Scotty’s. In a 1985 article, CEO James Sweet candidly described the impact of the revolution.

“When we were hit with the competition from the warehouse stores, we really didn’t know what to do,” he said. “At first, we were going around putting out fires. It took us a couple of years before we decided what to do.”

Scotty’s came up with a plan — including their version of what was an industry-wide mania: build a “store of the future.” For a while, Scotty’s was racing with the big boys. It even had its own racecar in the late 1980s, car No. 16. But in 2005, the company fell apart.

Home Channel News asked executives who lived through the period why some succeeded and others failed. The answers are as different as the companies themselves, but they include: passion, focus, execution, timing and, of course, bankroll.

One can add to that list: a little bit of luck.

The HIRI Fall Conference will be loaded with powerhouse presentations with observations from Wall Street to Main Street and a lineup of six research-oriented presenters. Visit for more information. And if you have a lesson from the Golden Age of retailing, by all means, let us know.

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