Strategic Maneuvers : You can't go charging into a home-improvement store without a battle plan. Those who've spent time in the trenches can lead you to the path of glory.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard and Penny Smith are pretty handy around the house--a good thing, because the couple recently bought one and have been doing landscaping, stonework and electrical and irrigation improvements themselves.

Besides their skills with hammers, trowels and power saws, the Orange residents have also gotten pretty good at navigating the aisles of the local do-it-yourself warehouses.

Still, while unfazed by a ton of bulk slate that must be cut, shaped and mortared into place, the Smiths admit they've been frustrated by the yawning, maze-like interiors and seemingly contradictory stocking policies of the big stores.

"We've left that place in tears more than once," Penny Smith said of Home Depot's Fullerton store, which has been undergoing a massive remodeling.

Chief among complaints about warehouse stores, the Smiths cite mis-marked or unpriced merchandise, stocking policies that make some items hard to find and employees who offer advice about things they shouldn't--or who aren't around to help when needed.

The Smiths aren't alone in their frustration.

A sprawling home-improvement warehouse can be daunting even to a seasoned pro.

But there are ways to get the better of the minds that hide air-conditioning ducts with the water heaters, keep hammers and nails aisles apart and shelve hefty steel bases for porch posts alongside delicate ornamental drawer pulls for kitchen cabinets.

To help you slip in and out of a warehouse store as effortlessly as Tim (The Toolman) Taylor insults sidekick Al Borland on TV's "Home Improvement," The Times asked Mark Baker, merchandising manager of HomeBase Home Improvement Warehouse, and Vince Ingram, store manager for the Home Depot in Orange, to explain the whys and wherefores of their stores' layouts. The secret, they said, is to understand the rationale of how the big stores are laid out and to plan a trip accordingly.

"I see people in here on Saturdays wandering from one side of the store to the other and then back again," Ingram said. "They haven't made a list that is in order, so they spend a lot of time and effort going back and forth. It's a lot more economical to shop from one side of the store to the other."

Reconnaissance

Departmentalization is the key, and logic is similar among the chains.

* Lumber and building materials (such as drywall, concrete, stucco, roofing supplies and bricks) all go together--so do paint, tape, tarps, glues, caulks and scrapers.

* Hand and power tools are usually stocked in the same area, along with accouterments such as saw blades, toolboxes and batteries for cordless tools.

Where each section is depends on the store. But most things are stocked in complementary groups.

Think about how a house is laid out, suggests Baker, also a vice president at HomeBase's Irvine headquarters.

Paint, tile and flooring materials--and the tools to install them--are on adjoining aisles, usually near other interior decor items such as shades, curtain rods, ornamental hardware and wallpaper. Electrical equipment is usually near electrical lighting, and switch covers and dimmer knobs--although technically ornamental hardware--usually are in that section too. They go together in the house.

Stores help keep a lid on prices by minimizing the need for employees to handle goods. So the bulkiest, heaviest stuff is almost always along the sides and in the back: Look for the loading doors on the outside, and near them on the inside is where you'll find bricks, cement, lumber, doors and windows.

"We want to be able to bring it right in and put it on the shelf with a minimum of [employee] fingerprints on it," Baker said.

The stores also want to make sure customers see as many of their wares as possible--so all the tools and materials necessary to complete a job are displayed together whenever possible, Ingram added.

It's that caveat, whenever possible, that drives many do-it-yourselfers nuts.

Battlefield Logic

Building a patio cover requires lumber, but it can also take cement, steel construction bracing, deck screws, nails, saw blades (maybe even a new power saw), hammers, screwdrivers, paint and more.

No store has the space to stock all of that in the same spot. Especially when some of that same stuff is also needed for assembling and installing new cabinets, which are displayed in a completely different part of the store.

Some of the apparent oddities are really rational. Though it might make sense to stock hammers alongside nails, that would leave a big gap in the tool section when someone came in looking for a hammer.

Hammers, first and foremost, are tools--some aren't even made for driving nails--so the tool section is where they stay. And nails would be out of place in tools. So they stay in the hardware-fasteners section, with screws, bolts, washers and related items.

However, at some of the newer, bigger stores (the newest Home Depots, for example, are coming in at 140,000 to 150,000 square feet of floor space, about 40% bigger than the older ones), more shelf space means that the manager can do more cross-marketing.

So you can now find roofing nails displayed with roofing materials, and deck screws stocked on the same aisle as lumber for porch decking.

Neither Baker nor Ingram, however, holds out hope that all of the big chains will some day adopt the same stocking and display system.

The best survival advice is something that smart grocery shoppers have known for years: Memorize the layout of the store or stores you are going to be frequenting and make aisle-by-aisle lists of what you need before you arrive.

A Plan of Attack

A shopping list is critical to a smooth trip to a home-improvement super-store because it works like a road map and eliminates the need to push a cart loaded with 90-pound sacks of cement and 10-foot lengths of 2-by-4 lumber halfway across a crowded store to pick up a pound of nails and then back to the other side to get a fluorescent bulb for the garage.

"We try to cross-merchandise as much as we can" so that items that logically could go together are displayed together, Baker said. "But it is all dependent on the amount of shelf space" in any section.

It also depends on how long and loud customers holler, admitted Ingram--yes, complaints and suggestions help.

"I'd say that about 80% of the changes we make are changes our customers asked for," he said.

At HomeBase, that means that duct tape--that thick silver-colored sticky tape originally meant for sheet metal ducts and now used by everyone for everything--is carried not only alongside the ducts but also in the paint department. "We've given up trying to tell people that it is a plumbing supply," Baker said.

Apparently, however, the Home Depot people aren't quitters. They still stock duct tape only with the ducts, even through all other kinds of tape are in the paint section, along with tarps, caulking and similar materials.

Speaking of ducts, the stores are departmentalized, but some of the departments make more sense to professional contractors than to ordinary homeowners, no matter how handy they may be.

That's why in most of the stores the sheet-metal parts for furnaces and hot-water heaters, vent kits for laundry rooms, air-conditioning filters and ducts are in the plumbing section.

Plumbing includes not only stuff that moves water, but items used to move air around the house as well, Ingram said.

Skirmishes

If you are shopping for copper or galvanized pipe for a home project, by all means, go to the plumbing department at any of the super-stores.

But if you are shopping for pipes and fittings for landscape irrigation, you might have to visit two sections.

Mostly, the stuff is in plumbing. But at HomeBase stores it is in the garden section with hoses and trowels and sprinklers and things.

Both locations make sense, but to a harried shopper on a crowded Saturday, inconsistency from store to store can be maddening.

The Home Depot in Orange, for instance, stocks metal constructing bracing and post bases in the lumber department. At Home Depot in Santa Ana, the same materials are in the fasteners section. And HomeBase in Irvine stocks them in a section near hardware called "contractor supplies."

Shelf brackets are another example. In all home-improvement stores, standard, utilitarian steel shelf brackets are displayed in the hardware section because that's what they are. At Home Depot, that's also where you will find drawer pulls and ornamental shelf brackets. But at HomeBase, ornamental shelf brackets are in housewares. If you are looking for both types of brackets, you have to visit two departments.

"Part of it has to do with the way things are merchandised," Baker explained. "Some things come in loose, for display in bins, and some are in plastic, shrink-wrapped packs that have to be displayed differently" and end up in different aisles.

If that makes it sound like the stores are at the mercy of their suppliers--well, that's not all wrong.

One of the big frustrations of shopping on a Saturday morning at a super-store for supplies for a daylong project is to stand in a checkout line for 20 minutes only to discover that the one essential gizmo doesn't have a price tag, or, worse, is mis-priced.

Most everything these days comes pre-marked with a universal price code applied by the supplier. The home store's responsibility is to enter the proper bar code into its computer system so that the checkout scanner reads it and rings up the appropriate price.

But if something goes haywire at the supplier's end and half a dozen gizmos in the middle of a run aren't marked, the super-store has little control unless an alert clerk sees the tags are missing when the material arrives, Ingram said.

So take a few seconds to inspect whatever you plan to buy, to make sure it is all there and to make sure that it has a price tag or UPC bar-code sticker on it.

It also makes sense to shop around. Full-service lumberyards sometimes offer better quality wood than the home stores do, often at competitive prices; and the local hardware shop often carries specialized stuff--parts for older plumbing fixtures, for instance--that warehouse stores won't touch because the demand is too low.

Returns Without Retreat

Finally, when the shopping is done and the job is completed, comes the worst chore--returning.

Super-stores will rarely question the reason for a return. (They will, however, question obviously used or abused merchandise.) The pain is in the often-interminable wait.

And for that, there's no prevention except timing.

Do not try to use a lunch hour to return those extra sprinkler heads or a malfunctioning ceiling fan. That's when every other do-it-yourselfer is bringing back his or her extra supplies or broken equipment.

Go on a Friday evening when neighbors are at the movies; stop in early Sunday on the way to church or golfing; get up an hour early and drop by on your way to work.

If you do go at lunch, after work or on a weekend much after 9 a.m., don't expect any kind of speed. These places offer the convenience of lots of goodies under one roof and, usually, low prices. But they don't do miracles.

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