As I mentioned in the enthralling blog about Holland & Barrett, I periodically try to examine stores outside of my traditional grocery remit. As with Holland & Barrett, this week I’m taking a look at a store that I have no right whatsoever to have an opinion about. In the former case, this is because I am an overweight lazybones with no interest at all in health & wellness. In the latter case, this is because I am a cack-handed, clueless buffoon that doesn’t know one end of a hammer from another and couldn’t wire a plug if my life depended on it.

Despite my total disinterest in, and inability to use, 70% of what they sell, I was keen to pop my head round the door at Bunnings, the Antipodean entrant to the British home improvement retail space. Partly out of curiosity, partly because I got the sense that Bunnings’ entry vehicle Homebase had finally rediscovered its mojo and partly to see how the new player would seek to carve out a point of difference against incumbent heavyweights such as Wickes and B&Q.

The store, on a retail park in St. Albans, looks rather smart from the outside, with a variety of proclamations over low prices and widest ranges being accompanied by jaunty display of wheelbarrows and the like. Upon entering the store, I was immediately welcomed by a superfriendly greeter who asked me I would need any help in finding what I wanted – a nice touch that made me feel slightly more at home in a totally alien environment.

I wandered through the shed, assisted by the excellent signage and graphics, occasionally stopping to look at a variety of unfamiliar objects like power tools and bits of wood. The excellent paint department was a bit more reassuring, as I have decorated a room once or twice and there was a big picture of a nice fluffy dog.

Despite my grotesque ignorance about half of what was in the shop, I progressed onto more familiar territory, as the bathroom and kitchen sections came into view, plenty of staff and service desks on hand to help shoppers as they selected what would be not inconsiderable investments. This strong service ethic shone through at every turn. I have no idea if Bunnings has borrowed an iteration of Sam Walton’s ‘ten-foot rule’, but the presence of helpful, yet unobtrusive, staff across the entire store was an excellent feature and the many shoppers in the store were frequently seen to be interacting with staff – not something that you saw much of in Homebase to be honest.

One thing that I do know a smidgeon about is gardening, and the excellent gardening department at the back of the store was a joy. For a DIY shed, the range is phenomenal – more akin to a moderately sized specialist garden centre – and plenty of effort has gone into informational signage and ‘how to’ guides. I was unable to investigate fully as it was tipping down with rain and the outdoor section is only partially covered. The garden range inside the store is equally impressive, including unfamiliar (to me) concepts like vertical gardening, with my only criticism of the gardening offer being that NO-ONE WAS OUTSIDE COOKING SAUSAGES, meaning that I was unable to sample the famous Bunnings Sausage Sizzle.

The instore café looked pretty decent, but was scant consolation for my sorrowful state of sausagelessness. I was soon cheered up, however, by the marvellous BBQ department, with outdoor cooking equipment of every conceivable type very well merchandised alongside a comprehensive array of fuels and accessories. I’m fairly certain that I barged through a crowd of senior Bunnings management in this area, so I would like to offer some retrospective apologies for doing so. Sorry, cobbers.

The front of the store is something of an Aladdin’s cave of assorted special offers, outdoor buildings and heaters/fires. As with elsewhere in the store, there were plenty of palletised displays along the front of the outlet. In other hands, this might have come across as a bit tatty (as could the handwritten signage that is prevalent across the store), but in Bunnings it served to underscore the value messaging and sense of character of the place. Establishing character, or dare I say it, soul in a sector like DIY is a big ask, but Bunnings – on this evidence – appear to have pulled it off.

In what might be the most damning indictment of me being hopelessly middle class that I will ever write, I went off back to the hardware & tools department to buy a pressure washer with which to clean my decking. The guy manning the till in this area gave me some tremendous advice and service (effectively down-selling rather than upselling) and made sure that I left a very happy camper indeed. After a nice chat with the greeter on my way out, I manhandled my lovely new pressure washer into the boot of my car and drove off, with a new sense of optimism that Bunnings will more than hold its own in the UK if it replicates this experience across future Homebase conversions.

That said, someone at Bunnings owes me a sausage.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director

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