Home Depot Designed For Activities, Not Experiences

Jared Spool

October 1st, 2012

Mark Schaefer loves Home Depot. He wrote this blog post about how much. However, in that same post, he talked about a breakdown in the experience of being a Home Depot shopper.

I’ve been going to Home Depot for 20 years and have spent untold thousands of dollars on home improvement and landscaping materials. I am a totally loyal customer.

A few months ago, I bought a dozen small bushes for my front yard. About half of them died. The store has a one-year guarantee on its plants so I took a picture of the dead plants (instead of uprooting them and carrying the six dirt balls in my car) and went to the store for a refund.

When I presented my claim to the service clerk I was told that I would have to drive home, dig up the plants and show the evidence before I could get my refund. When I explained that I wasn’t about to make another 40-minute round-trip visit to get the dead plants, the clerk said, “Well, for all we know that could be a picture of your neighbor’s yard.”

Mark spends a lot of money at Home Depot. He thinks they should’ve given the refund without him needing to dig up the balls of dirt and dead shrubs and haul them back into the store. He’s probably right. After all, what is Home Depot going to do with those dirty, dead things?

The problem here is how Home Depot has designed their the shopping and refund processes. The designers have only thought about the discrete activities. They’ve never considered the full experience.

The discrete activities are around purchasing and credits. They are very straightforward and work 99% of the time.

But in this case, they fell apart in a way that didn’t help the experience at all. The designers didn’t take into account that the person asking for the refund was a loyal customer. The designers didn’t take into account that returning a collection of dead shrubs is an inconvenient and messy operation that someone wouldn’t want to do. The designers didn’t account for a customer who lived a long way from the store, making it inconvenient for multiple trips.

The designers could’ve designed the return process differently. It could take into account the loyalty of the customer and the probability that a customer that loyal would try to defraud the company.

(This is pretty easy: just divide the total amount of refunds into the total amount of purchases over a multi-year period. Numbers that are tremendously small fractions are probably unlikely to be a threat to the finances of company. Someone who has tried to refund $100 purchase after spending $10,000 over the same period is someone who will continue to spend, especially if you just give the dude a store credit.)

However, the system wasn’t designed to take that into account. And the training of the customer service desk folks wasn’t designed to accommodate the problem either. Therefore, the customer service person accused the loyal customer of trying to defraud them.

Design is easy for the 99% case. Where design really gets interesting is when deciding which edge conditions to go after and how to tackle them. How would you have designed the refund process for Home Depot to have a better outcome for Mr. Schaefer?

One Response to “Home Depot Designed For Activities, Not Experiences”

  1. HD Guy Says:

    This is an interesting article that makes some excellent points on creating a good shopping experience.

    I work for Home Depot, though I’m speaking purely for myself, and not in any official capacity.

    Customer service desk folks are indeed trained to use good judgement and Home Depot employees are empowered (to use an overused term) to do what it takes to make a customer happy. They can’t give away the store, of course, but they’re supposed to take into account the customer experience and factor in the value of keeping a customer against the dollar write off, just as you recommend.

    I’m pretty certain if the store manager had been within earshot, he or she would have stepped in and refunded the customer’s money without further question and sincerely thanked him for his business.

    But it’s hard to train good judgement.

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