It’s common to make a special effort in business and personal endeavors when you return home after years out of town. Often there’s a yen to give something back to the place that gave you your start—perhaps along with the desire to show off a few tricks you learned while you were away. The Friedman family of Friedman’s Home Improvement felt that way about Petaluma, Calif.
The result is a new, Excellence Award-winning facility that’s as notable for its desire to reconnect emotionally with the locals as it is for its thinking about how to create a place that excels at serving DIY and pro clients.
- When you enter the 83,000-square-foot store, you immediately come upon a welcome desk—dubbed the Information Hub—that’s staffed with people assigned to ask about your projects, suggest solutions, and send you to one of 20 departments.
- Two wide “power aisles” that intersect at the Information Hub make navigation easy and provide space for special offers.
- Close to the Information Hub are stairs leading to a 5,000-square-foot mezzanine that houses the Kitchen and Bath Design Center.
- Departments are carefully arranged to minimize interaction between pros and retail customers, with only a few places—such as for power tools—where they overlap.
- One of those dual spaces is an Express Yard display that enables people inside the store to see which of hundreds of building products are available outside, then order them and go out the back door to pick them up. At Friedman’s, you can either pay first or load first.
- Behind the store on the 10.5-acre lot lies an express yard for commodities. Pros have a separate entrance with easy access to their sales reps.
- Friedman’s extra touches make clear that this is no generic big box. In homage to the same Northern California mindset that requires new structures to put an electric vehicle charging station in the parking lot, there are two enormous “living walls” of plants flanking the main entrance plus two smaller living walls at the nursery.
- The facade’s five 20-by-40-foot windows contain images showing home improvement projects under way.
- Immediately inside the main entry, a 60-by-60-foot mural depicts the local Sonoma County hills.
“We put a lot of effort into the design and feel of the store,” says Barry Friedman, the company’s president and CEO. He’s the third generation of Friedmans to run an operation that began in 1946 and departed Petaluma for nearby Santa Rosa after a fire in 1976. “Part of the grandeur of the store is that we wanted to show Petaluma what we learned when we were away.”
“We wanted people to feel they were entering into a Sonoma County–based business,” he adds. “Also, some of the features we put in, most home improvement dealers wouldn’t put as much effort into. The living wall on the outside doesn’t help sell products, but it shows that we’re dedicated to not just putting up a concrete building. We wanted to do something that was a talking point, showing we’re green and sustainable. It connects us more to our local community.”
Though Barry and father Bill Friedman, the company’s chairman, might already have had a sense of what Petaluma wanted, given that two of their three other stores are less than 20 miles away, the Friedmans still did their research. They worked with Anza Environments, a brand development consultancy, and The Farnsworth Group, a research shop specializing in LBM, to interview contractors and retail customers and to convert discoveries into an attractive, sales-stimulating store design.
“Some of the things we learned were that there was quite a bit of angst toward the typical big-box store. There was a fair amount of resistance,” notes Joe Harvard, Anza’s senior project director.
“We call it ‘big-box fatigue,’” says Dale Hoover, Anza’s president. “There was a perception [in big-box stores] of a lack of customer service, of direction, of how you get to where you need to go. This sense that you’re basically on your own.”
The research also made clear that professional builders and remodelers wanted Friedman’s merchandise but not Friedman’s retail crowds.
“They didn’t want distractions around their part of the store,” is how Harvard puts it. “They wanted it to be strictly business—‘Have the stuff we need right there, and don’t have distractions like displays of faucets.’”
Internally, Tony Corsberg, Friedman’s vice president of merchandise and marketing, got deep into an effort to learn what staffers dreamed of having in the store; they called it their bucket list. Once key decisions were made, Friedman’s brought in The Farnsworth Group to run focus groups and individual interviews to test concepts that the company’s staff and Anza had developed.
“To Tony, one issue was the floor plan,” Robisch says. “[We’d ask in surveys,] ‘Here are five layouts. If you were coming to shop for some of what Friedman’s sells, what format would be most comfortable and why?’ Other questions would be about what renditions did they find more appealing.”
The goal, Robisch says, was “to reach a happy medium in terms of having a really crackerjack store, but not going over the top and looking like a Saks Fifth Avenue.”
The Information Hub turned out to solve several problems, Hoover says. Because finding things in a big store challenges both pros and DIYers, having a place to go for directions answers that need. It also gives the store a more personal feel, and smart questioning by counter staff can boost sales by opening customers’ minds to products and possibilities.
Friedman’s paid close attention to signage and aisles. Signs were designed to both give direction and show hierarchies within the store’s organization. Meanwhile, the 18-foot-wide power aisles gave the store an open feel while making it possible to put pallets of special offers in high-traffic areas.
“Customers perceive 12 feet much differently than 18,” Hoover says. “There’s a feeling customers get when there’s elbow room.”
Organizing the outside yard also generated lots of discussion. While the size of Friedman’s stores and their marketing style might make some observers regard them as throwbacks to the old home centers, the Friedmans deliberately seek to serve both DIYers and pros on their own terms. Companywide, Friedman’s gets about 40% of its sales from contractors. At the Petaluma store it’s about 25%, but management is eager to see that number rise.
That said, pros going to Friedman’s run more toward remodelers and small builders than the big home-construction outfits; big builders tend to go to Golden State Lumber, also based in Petaluma. That means Friedman’s has a lot of pickup and drop-in traffic from pros and a lower percentage of goods trucked to the jobsite. Thus, Friedman’s puts a premium on saving pros’ time, starting with a dedicated parking lot and a special entrance for pros.
Hoover thinks that one of the store’s distinguishing features is the area inside the store that displays all of the lumber, fencing materials, gates, culverts, and other items that are stored outside—close to 1,200 SKUs, all with tickets that a customer can take to the sales counter and use to place an order for pickup outside. “The system avoids having people wander around outside the yard looking for product, and you can do [the choosing] in a climate-controlled environment,” he says.
The real estate around the pros’ section “is clearly dedicated for quick in-and-out access,” Hoover says. All transactions can be handled in the contractor sales area, and if the pro does want to venture into the other part of the store, the areas that he or she is most likely to go—such as the door/millwork department and the tools section—are adjacent to the pro counter.
“Friedman’s had the choice of doing the same old thing,” says Anza’s Hoover. “And by doing the same old thing, they’d have followed the indy trend in terms of sales. If the industry grew 4%, they’d have grown 4%. They took the initiative from the top to do this differently. And the benefit of doing it differently and doing what customers want—in an objective, market-driven way—is that they stand to beat the industry trend. ... Especially in an arena as competitive as this, people who make these moves are going to exponentially be more successful.”