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Architecture + Branding: Advocating the form adopted as the industry standard, The Home Depot concedes merit of moving beyond the “big orange box” model

1-Fragmented no more

Home improvement retailing had long been composed of local, or regional chains, specializing in a specific category or sub-category of the construction sector, resulting in a fragmented scene, populated by lumber yards, hardware stores, and various specialized home improvement retailers.

In the later half of the 1970s, a retail concept was born, challenging the status quo,  bringing several disparate yet interrelated segments together into a single store, under one immense over-arching roof.

In the early days, the entire raison d’être for The Home Depot (THD) was to revolutionize and reshape the industry, casting a long shadow over the competition through physical size. Entering the scene in 1978, THD did not have first mover advantage, as major competitor Lowes, founded in 1946, had a market advance decades long (source: wikipedia). Undeterred by its limited lineage, THD grew, expanded, and rode the housing and residential renovation/construction booms in the 1990s and 2000s to surpass all competitors, becoming the No. 1 home improvement retailer in the world.

DSC07660 THD THD Suburban store Aberdeen Maryland

The Home Depot, suburban big box format store, Aberdeen, Maryland

DSC04749 THD Reno Depot Vaudreuil Quebec

Réno-Dépôt, large format suburban big box store, Vaudreuil, Québec, Canada

DSC04329 THD Lowes Arsenal Street Watertown New York

LOWES, large format suburban big box store, Arsenal Street, Watertown, New York

DSC08746 THD Rona Mapleview Drive near Highway 400 Barrie Ontario

RONA, large format suburban big box store, Mapleview Drive near Highway 400, Barrie, Ontario, Canada

Along the way, THD fostered a store format that would be copied by several competitors, as the format responded to operational needs while presenting an emerging marketing, promotional and brand building opportunity.

2-size does matter

Armed with a mission to revolutionize the home improvement industry, THD undertook to aggregate several items of the various industries, synthesizing lumber yard, hardware, tools, equipment rentals, gardening supplies, into one single catch-all retail store. Size would be required to achieve this objective. In the process, economies of scale could be realized through volume purchasing and trade discounts whilst emphasizing product selection, availability and breadth.

The first locations were crafted within the retail spaces controlled or vacated by other retailers, such as J.C. Penney or Zayre, proposing a  massive footprint to house an assortment of home improvement products (source: wikipedia). Growing organically  was not an option. Getting big, fast, in order to achieve critical mass to outmuscle and outmanoeuvre existing and emerging competitors, was a primary requirement.

DSC10531 THD The Home Depot Apron and Logo

The Home Depot orange apron with logo

Entering the scene with size as its unique distinguishing feature, THD continues to use size to differentiate itself from the competitors. As evidence, The Home Depot’s 2,000+ stores range in size from 105,000 sq. ft. to 225,000 sq. ft., while major competitor LOWES’ 1,600+ stores have a smaller footprint, ranging from 85,000 sq. ft. to 120,000 sq. ft. (source: wikipedia).

DSC09501 THD THD Suburban store Route 11 near i81 Cicero New York

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Route 11, Cicero, New York

DSC09661 THD Lowes Cornelia Street near i87 Plattsburg New York

LOWES, large format suburban big box store, Cornelia Street near Interstate 87, Plattsburgh, New York

Although the retail stores have evolved and altered in appearance since the initial store, eventually establishing an architectural aesthetic all their own, the immense size proposition as differentiator remains intact.

3-claiming identity

Long, deep, flat and expansive, The Home Depot stores are genuinely massive, supported by an equally large parking area. Integral to a retail power center development or stand-alone, the prototypical THD store is that found in suburban locations.

Reduced height combined with generous length and depth, these typical stores are sprawling, quite low to the ground and wide, creating an expansive floor area on a single level to display the breadth of products.

The architecture exudes a simplicity that is focused on expediting the retail transaction process. Initial approach reveals an expansive façade with minimal embellishments, a lack of visual clutter and limited articulation.

DSC08031 THD THD Suburban store Billy Bishop Way Downsview Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Billy Bishop Way, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada

The main entrance, generally located below a marquee, typically step or gable, is spatially separated from the exit, thereby eliminating conflicting in-and-out customer traffic flows. As some of the items sold at THD are heavy, awkward or bulky, this one-way flow configuration is a boon to simplifying pedestrian/cart circulation patterns.

DSC08641 THD THD Suburban store Yonge Street near Bunshaw East Gwillimbury Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Yonge Street near Bunshaw, East Gwillimbury, Ontario, Canada

Funneling clients for ingress and egress is taken a step further, as segmentation between retail consumers/home owners and contractors/building professionals attempts to minimize intermingling, reduce wait times, and alleviate congestion. Consumers and contractors often have conflicting needs and time constraints, as the browsing-to-buying ratio are inversely proportional from one group to the other. The contractor assigned entrance and exit is traditionally located on the opposing end of the façade, and is far less adorned than that for consumers, often consisting of as little as a single labelled door, and overhead door for forklift loading of sizeable quantities of building materials, at times, replete with a canopy or porte cochere.

DSC04912 THD THD Suburban store College Square Baseline and Woodroffe Ottawa Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Baseline Road at Merivale Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

The inherent simplicity of the warehouse ethos, low expenditure on fixtures and equipment,  implicitly dictates the use of long-lasting durable exterior materials, such as concrete block, tilt-up concrete panels, precast panels, concrete, stone, metal cladding, steel, aluminum and glass.

The warehouse ethos continues on the inside, complete with exposed industrial style lighting, wide aisles for forklift and cart circulation, exposed concrete floors and tall pallet racking.

Inside and outside, the warehouse edict is fashioned and reinforced through the tone of the design language, as well as the use of colour. Embracing a vivid orange, for brand image, logo, signage, store fixtures and identifiers, bathes the interiors in a wave of orange that began from the outset. Blending lighter coloured building materials, such as white or beige, within the elevations with the intense orange colour palette applied to select and specific elements, such as exposed roofs, cap flashings and horizontal banding, aids in creating a cohesive branding focused architectural design effort.

THD THD Orange box logo

The Home Depot, Orange box logo (source: thehomedepot.com)

For the most part, The Home Depot could hardly be accused of blending in seamlessly into the immediate surroundings. The massive footprint, expansive façade, low height, and predominantly bland elevations, accentuating the calculated use of overt colour, THD is emblematic of its “big orange box” moniker.

4-exporting the “big orange box”

A confluence of factors in the U.S., from the proliferation of real estate speculation and “flipping”, the introduction of specialty television channel HGTV in 1994 and an emerging do-it-yourself (DIY) culture, helped fuel an almost unmitigated thirst for all things “home improvement” starting around the middle part of the 1990s. Having built an aesthetic that clearly portrayed “The Home Depot way”, expansion of the retail model across North America would attempt to capitalize upon these developments.

DSC08371 THD THD Suburban store Wonderland Road near Southdale London Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Wonderland Road near Southdale, London, Ontario, Canada

Entrance into foreign markets, Canada (1994) and Mexico (2001), followed very similar paths, consisting of the acquisition of existing home improvement retailers (Aikenhead’s Hardware-Canada ; Total HOME, Del Norte, Home Mart-Mexico) and conversion of the acquired enterprise to reflect the established THD standards (source: wikipedia, thehomedepot.com). The expansion proved to be successful, as  The Home Depot Canada and The Home Depot Mexico have, through a combination of acquisitions and organic growth, become the No.1 home improvement retailer in their respective markets (source: thehomedepot.com). For many North American DIYer’s and renovation professionals, THD has become the go-to brand.

THD THDM Bulevar Solidaridad 900 - 83280 Hermosillo Sonora Mexico

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Bulevar Solidaridad 900 – 83280 Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico (source: maps.google.com)

However, the experience in North America has not translated so well beyond the continent.

THD THD big box store China_1

The Home Depot, big box format store, China (source: toolmonger.com)

THD entered the Chinese market in December 2006 following the same path, acquiring local big box retailer The Home Way, with 12 stores spread across six cities (source: wikipedia / http://www.businessinsider.com). Yet, the story did not play out the same. The Home Depot failed to gain traction in China and began to progressively trim its store numbers until finally capitulating, announcing in September 2012 that it would be closing all remaining big box stores, which numbered seven at the time (source: wikipedia / http://www.businessinsider.com). Only two newer, smaller specialty stores, an HDC Store (décor) and a paint and flooring store will remain in China (source: wikipedia).

THD THD big box store China_2

The Home Depot, big box format store, China (source: online.wsj.com)

Experimenting with a variety of strategies to make The Home Depot retail model work, the company found itself competing in a different marketplace, where appeal for large format big box store waned and a DIY culture is less entrenched  (source: http://www.businessinsider.com).

Ironically, news that The Home Depot would be closing its big box retail stores in China was met with muted reactions from retail analysts who seemed unsurprised by the retailer’s inability to connect with Chinese consumers. The re-evaluation of the big box model, though a strategic business and operational setback, should not prove overwhelmingly impossible for a company that has some previous experience with altering its retail format due to localization considerations and urban planning limitations.

5-redefining the box

Although prototype buildings like The Home Depot’s big box retail model, reinforce and build brand awareness, the design does allow for some amount of localization and modifications, capable of responding to criticism and resistance, especially in historic/heritage districts, tourist enclaves, and established neighbourhoods.

THD THD suburban large format store Upgraded exterior finishes

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store with upgraded exterior finishes (source: thehomedepot.com)

The mental image of the “big orange box” serves the brand in several ways, yet does not showcase the levels of experimentation, modification and alteration made in localizing the brand.

THD THD 1020 Shoppes at Midway Drive Knightdale North Carolina

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store with upgraded exterior finishes, Shoppes at Midway Drive, Knightdale, North Carolina (source: maps.google.com)

The most acute example is the wholesale reinterpretation of the suburban big box model to function in an urban setting.

New York City truly serves as a proving ground/test lab for expanding the brand aesthetic and showcasing how THD can have a presence in areas where land is restricted and suburban style developments are unfeasible and impractical.

Serving a market that consists more of apartment dwellers than suburban tract home owners, the stores in NYC propose a sharper local focus on décor, curtains, paints, storage, kitchen and bath, rather than lumber, bricks, and hardware.

THD THD_A1 23RD Street and 6TH NYC NY

The Home Depot urban store, 40 West 23rd St between 5th Ave and East 23rd St, New York City, New York (source: maps.google.com)

THD THD_A2 23RD Street between 5TH and 6TH NYC New York

The Home Depot, urban format store, 40 West 23rd St between 5th Ave and East 23rd St, New York City, New York (source: maps.google.com)

The urban stores turn the big box model on its head, abandoning the single floor layout and the warehouse ethos, and instituting the idea of a multiple level design showroom complete with escalators and natural light. In conflict with the customary suburban model, the use of colours and materials is more muted, respectful and vernacular. Quietly integrating into established enclaves and neighbourhoods, the façade, scale, signage, colour, and design tone are consistent and complementary with the adjacent buildings.

THD THD_B1 980 3RD between 58TH and 59TH NYC New York

The Home Depot, urban format store, 980 3rd Ave between 58th St and 59th St, New York City, New York (source: maps.google.com)

THD THD_B2 980 3RD between 58TH and 59TH NYC New York

The Home Depot, urban format store, 980 3rd Ave between 58th St and 59th St, New York City, New York (source: maps.google.com)

Broadening the design palette to recast brand elements that can echo and reflect the characteristics of the suburban model, melding into established neighbourhoods and onto smaller parcels of land, should increasingly broaden the architectural vocabulary and visual representation of The Home Depot in the minds of consumers.

DSC07936 THD Rona Colossus Drive Vaughan Ontario

RONA, large format suburban big box store, Colossus Drive, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that the big box model may benefit from some timely rethinking, Canadian home improvement retailer RONA, announced its strategic plans in Spring of 2012 to begin a move away from the format towards smaller, more locally attuned stores which highlight proximity over vast selection (source: The Ottawa Citizen, May 05, 2012).

DSC09473 THD Lowes Route 11 near i481 Cicero New York

LOWES, large format suburban big box store, Route 11 near Interstate 81, Cicero, New York
Although many of the “big box” home improvement stores are similar, repetitive, and undifferentiated, The Home Depot has a demonstrated history of being able, when warranted, to reinterpret and remix its aesthetic design language to better respond to its immediate surroundings. The challenges, setbacks and eventual retrenchment in China reinforce the need to protect and expand the architectural identity of the brand to further its market presence and preserve its No. 1 status amid competition on a global scale.

DSC10536 THD The Home Depot Gift Card wood crate with red bow

The Home Depot Holiday themed gift card, wooden crate and red bow

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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