Woolworths has plans to spend more than $400 million this year on its new Masters Home Improvement stores to try and compete with hardware giant Bunnings Warehouse . Can shiny floors, magazines, McDonald's and appliances make the difference? Our Retail Reboot heads to the first Masters outlet in Braybrook.
Despite the hardware trimmings, this is a replay of the broader supermarket wars in many respects: Bunnings is owned by Coles parent company Wesfarmers. By building large stores, Woolworths isn't aiming to compete with local convenience, in the manner of Mitre 10 or independent stores. What is it trying to change in its attempt grab a share of the DIY market?
The Braybrook store (in Melbourne) is the first of seven Woolworths plans to open this year (the next venues are Tingalpa, Nerang and Springfield in Queensland this week, followed by Morayfield, Gregory Hills and Burnside). I didn't want to hit the store on launch day (that's never representative of the normal experience), so I ventured there a few weeks later.
Despite being on a similar general scale to Bunnings, Masters does have the feeling of being larger. To a fair degree, this is because the aisles are a little wider, and there aren't the pallets of bargain-priced goods strewn around at the front of the store and throughout the aisles. Some areas do seem smaller -- the garden centre is less spacious than most Bunnings I've been to -- but the overall feeling is generally one of space. Small details help, such as not having the power tools in a separately-secured area.
There's certainly no shortage of staff; I get greeted by five separate employees in the first 10 minutes of my visit. It's possibly a reflection of it being a relatively quiet Wednesday, but it does suggest service is available when you need it. I hate getting randomly greeted by sales staff (I'm very much a solo shopper), but I remind myself that in a large hardware store where you're potentially buying in unfamiliar categories, this would be helpful for many people.
One useful feature is information above the shelves detailing what products you'll use in particular situations. This isn't going to solve all your problems, but it's definitely a clever touch. There are also neat technological tweaks, such as getting a buzzer to tell you when your paint has been mixed, but I don't test this (for the simple reason I don't need any paint).
What I don't like
While there are more appliances than you'll see in a typical Bunnings, in many other categories I don't feel there's quite the same range of choice. Looking at items I've purchased myself in hardware stores over the last six months, in most cases there seem to be fewer options. That's not to say you won't find most of what you need, but there don't seem to be so many brand choices or discounted items.
There are also some odd choices in terms of items stocked. I can't imagine too many people decide that a hardware store is where they want to buy gossip magazines.
Rather than the fairly basic (and often closed) cafes found in Bunnings, Masters is planning on having McDonald's branches in many of its stores. I can see this being appealing for families, but it's still not a great way to get a coffee (and the staff member who served mine barely seemed to know how to operate the register, let alone make the coffee).
Could you save money shopping here?
There are definitely some items priced at bargain levels here -- 65 cents for buckets is good, for instance. But as I've already mentioned, discounted items aren't featured to the same extent as Bunnings.
Pricing on other brand-name items (such as paint) seems similar to what you'll find everywhere else, which makes sense: even if Masters is aiming for a slightly more upmarket feel than Bunnings, it is in a competitive market and is going to have a smaller number of stores for the next few years. It can't afford to get a reputation for being heavily overpriced.
It does feel like there are more "completed" items on sale: more appliances, carpets, doors and outdoor furniture, but less construction basics. Some of those items are probably lurking in the adjacent trade shed, but it definitely creates a different atmosphere, and one in which you could risk spending more money than expected if you haven't done some comparison shopping beforehand (or on your phone in the store). That said, the existence of heavy competition for Bunnings, which has become the dominant hardware brand over the last decade, doesn't seem to be a bad thing.
In tomorrow's Retail Reboot instalment, we'll look at a quite different retailer: Apple.