Home Depot is a very different kind of store from the other big boxes

Today I was shopping at Home Depot for a fan. And as I exited, I noticed that a whole front row of parking lots were marked “Pro Customers Only”. And I was like, “What? What the hell is a professional customer?” And then I had an earthshattering epiphany. I realized that there is a huge industry of small independent contractors: one-man businesses who you call up to fix stuff that needs fixing. And I realized that these small customers don’t have the wholesale distributors that I associate with businesses (you know, like, do restaurants shop for their cutlery at Wal-Mart? I don’t think so…or do they?) And a whole bunch of these people shop at Home Depot. And not only that, Home Depot finds it in some way profitable to not only cater to those people, but also to be seen to cater those people (in a variety of ways, for instance Home Depot has the most bilingual signage of any store I’ve seen–everything is also in Spanish). For the ordinary people who shop at Home Depot for their personal use, there is somehow a kind of cachet in going to a place where professionals shop.

It’s strange that this kind of business model can exist. I normally think of stores for pros as being very small, sleek shops, like the businesses that make glassware to specification for laboratories, or the sports stores that pro athletes go to. But in this case the pro market is so large, so disorganized, and so economically powerless that the best they can hope for is the same scale economies that big box stores offer to everyone.

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