Having plunged into the flooring business with the grace of a hungry bear pawing through a picnic basket, Home Depot has quietly sounded retreat. It is abandoning its six-year-old Floor Store concept and pulling the plug on a call center set up last year to coordinate installations.  Home Depot will still sell flooring but it will no longer present itself as a specialist in the field. Appropriately enough, the news came last month on Valentine’s Day. There was no syrupy language. No hearts and flowers. They simply issued a brief news release that said getting out of the specialty store business would be “in the best interests of our customers…”

Yes, that is certainly true. But read between the lines and it’s clear to see: Home Depot has sent the floor covering industry a giant bouquet. The big box brain trust surely recognized that they cannot match the knowledge and professionalism found at a real specialty flooring store. Maybe they were too shy to say it, but they love floor covering specialty stores. So much so they tried to imitate them. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but consumers were unimpressed. Home Depot’s Valentine’s gift was stepping aside and letting the real pros do their work. Thank you, Home Depot. Even though it took more than six years, it was a sweet thing to do.
You may recall how Home Depot’s Floor Store debacle began. It was July 2000 and the company cut the ribbon on a store in the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas. It would go on to open five more in Texas and one in Florida. The stated mission was ambitious: “The Home Depot Floor Store will provide the largest selection of quality products at everyday low prices in a simple and informative format.” And the promise was lofty: “Professional sales consultants will comfortably guide the customer through the entire process, so they can make their selection with confidence.” As many in flooring predicted back then, the plan turned out to be Home Depot’s version of New Coke: a disastrous miscalculation followed by a costly and embarrassing retreat. It took Coca-Cola just over six years to recognize that its new sugary soft drink concoction was a lemon-about the same amount of time it took for Home Depot to come to its senses.
So what went wrong? It wasn’t the products. Home Depot had a level playing field  in that department. They had everything from $2 squares of basic tile to one-of-a-kind Persian rugs priced over $2,000. The Floor Stores were also first to sell Natural Forest, a line of interlocking, ecologically harvested hardwood flooring that needs no glue. It wasn’t a lack of marketing clout. Home Depot reportedly spends upwards of $700 million a year trying to lure people into their cavernous stores. Getting the word out to people was not the problem. The problem was the people staffing the stores.
I heard someone once crack that the only thing bright about the people working at Home Depot are the orange aprons they wear. I don’t buy that. Certainly the clerks at Home Depot are every bit as competent as those found in, say, a Barnes & Noble. But working in a flooring store does not make you an expert on flooring anymore than working in a book store makes you an authority on English literature. Wander into a real specialty flooring store and you are likely to encounter someone whose life is flooring. It may be the store owner or it may be a staff member who counts his or her years of service in decades. It most likely will not be a part time worker with only a perfunctory knowledge of flooring.
Home Depot never understood  that it is not about selling flooring, it’s about helping people acheieve the home of their dreams. The real pros in this business sit down with their clients and take the time to learn something about their tastes and their lifestyle. The real pros don’t sell, they advise and offer counsel. They create unique solutions. They personally make sure the installation is handled professionally, not from a central call center.
Home Depot tried to elbow its way into the specialty flooring business and it failed miserably. But we do owe them a debt of gratitude. Home Depot has mannaged to reinforce the notion that there is something truly special to be found in a floor covering specialty store. What a lovely Valentine’s Day gesture.