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a lesson in big-box shopping and why to be suspicious of those rock-bottom prices

a lesson in big-box shopping and why to be suspicious of those rock-bottom prices

home depot is touchy subject to all those who work in the world of design. interior designers flinch at the sight, showroom associates cringe at the mention, and wholesalers buckle at the thought.

with distribution channels unique to only stores of their size and part numbers offered only to their brand from brands & manufacturer that showrooms are also pushing, it puts a designer in a difficult position when a client brings any aspect of a big-box store into play. “I’ll be buying my fixtures from you, but I’m getting the toilet and sink and vanity and tile from home depot,” they say. “it’s the same product…and cheaper,” they say.

the standard spiel I offer customers when they ask why showroom prices are higher, or why I’m not price-matching home depot (or most big-box stores, really) is this: what you’re getting from a big-box store simply isn’t the same quality - or in many cases, even the same product - provided by smaller distributors, which is straight from the manufacturer.

though true to some extent, it’s also exaggerated to another. in many cases, you’re getting the same product, but the price differential is accounted for via that whole “economies of scale” model. consider it the same as large commercial interior design projects where lower prices are offered when products are purchased in bulk. the home depot model is the same, but with the addition of the resale factor.

however, big-box stores also have store-specific skus. these are products or lines that are specifically made to be distributed by that particular seller at substantially lower prices, manufactured to drastically different (lower) standards in order to be sold at a much lower (cheaper) price. read: cheap prices for cheap products.

often manufactured overseas and composed of plastic as opposed to brass, or with a less-refined clay content if ceramic. ceramics are run through molds thousands of times more than they would be on a showroom run, meaning the crisp styling you’d expect to see just isn’t there. pieces you’d like to fit together, don’t fit together when purchased big-box. kohler’s santa rosa toilet, for example, is run through two different runs by kohler. the first, for showrooms and smaller distributors. the second, for big box stores. the result is clear and it’s consistent across online sellers and big box reviews:

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other wholesalers receive a discount on product as well, but not to the extent (smaller multipliers) that big-box stores do. since big-box stores place their orders in mass bulk, they receive a significantly deeper discount than the wholesalers placing smaller stock orders - which accounts for the ability to lower prices even more. by warehousing product on their own, they do save themselves cost, sure, but they also have a much more limited product offering on hand.

though big box stores do have the ability to procure almost any product from any manufacturer that they distribute, it’s at this point you’d be better suited to head on over to a showroom. if the product isn’t pre-negotiated to be purchased in bulk with the store, you’ll be paying the same, if not more, than you would at a showroom - without the expertise and concierge service.

unlike showrooms, big-box stores don’t rely on customer loyalty either, necessarily, but the ability to deliver product in a pinch, and at rock bottom prices. what you’re paying for at a showroom is customer service. next time you find a big-box that offers you perrier during your browsing, let me know and I’ll personally send you a free faucet. you’re also paying for the experience which, to many, is well worth the potential upcharge.

some homeowners and diyers are extremely visual people and have difficulty envisioning what their space will look like post-install. in big-box stores, you get to see your product, sure, but in a huge, dusty box. maybe there’s one or two of what you’re looking at on the floor, but, again, dust. in showrooms, however, you get to experience what your entire space could look like. you get to put yourself in the space, before you buy it, ensuring confidence in your purchase.

remodels are huge investments and without being able to touch and feel what you’re buying, it can turn out to be a huge waste of time & money. for the service and experience you’re getting, in addition to the overall quality of product, that flinch, cringe, and buckling in terror done by those in the trade is pretty well warranted.


those are my thoughts, at least (and those that I’ve heard from others in the trade), but I’m curious to hear from you and what your thoughts on buying mid-to-high tier product at big box stores or shopping at showrooms are. good or bad experiences with products or customer services? let us know in the comments!

x - mk

the short list: current cabinetry obsessions

the short list: current cabinetry obsessions