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Do-It-Yourself, Do It Right!

Mega hardware stores help fuel $900 million do-it-yourself home improvement boom in Puerto Rico through classes, more and better-trained employees, easy-to-use tools, and limitless supplies

by José L. Carmona

May 11, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Local hardware stores are cashing in on the island’s growing number of do-it-yourselfers, who either prefer–or can’t find anyone else–to build or repair their homes.

The saying used to be, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." Handymen and women would take the time to do high-quality repair work to beautify or maintain their homes–for the joy of a job well done.

Now, "If you want something done, do it yourself," might be the better motto. The tight labor market and the questionable quality of much home improvement work have helped bring legions of new do-it-yourselfers (DIYers) out of their closets and into the stores.

And the legions keep growing. According to Puerto Rico Planning Board (PRPB) statistics, retail sales of hardware and construction materials reached a record $879.5 million in 1998. And 1999’s are estimated at $896 million, though final revision may make this number even greater.

To local DIYers, home improvement projects are fun, relatively easy to do, increase property value, involve the entire family, and save money.

Locally owned Plaza Masso and Atlanta-based The Home Depot (THD) megahardware stores couldn’t be happier–providing local DIYers with a Nirvana of tools, materials, and know-how that keeps the interest in home improvements alive. It’s a win-win-win situation for consumers, hardware stores, and the local economy.

"Just walk through one of the local megahardware stores, and you’ll find scores of families buying tools and materials to fix up or remodel their homes," said Jorge Berlingeri, executive director of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Puerto Rico chapter. "It fulfills DIYer needs as it benefits the ongoing boom in the construction industry. It’s good for our economy."

The rebirth of the DIY market

The rebirth of the local DIY market took off after Hurricane Georges hit the island in 1998, causing millions of dollars in damage. By then, Plaza Masso (formally Builders Square) and THD each had 100,000-plus-square-foot mega hardware stores in operation. These stores became among the greatest beneficiaries of the local construction boom resulting from Georges’ aftermath.

Local chivero tradition not new

Puerto Ricans have had a long-standing tradition as skilled DIYers. Whether it’s repairing a leaky faucet, installing a new kitchen cabinet, or redoing an entire bathroom, local DIYers have served as chiveros (handymen) for neighbors, relatives, or for themselves at some point in their lives. And that added to the appeal of the Puerto Rico market to hardware-store chains like Builders Square and THD.

Construction boom increases demand for DIYers

The boom being experienced by the local construction industry is expected to continue another 5 years, according to local AGC president Jose Vizcarrondo.

As the industry faces a shortage of about 10,000 skilled construction workers, many homeowners having a hard time finding good, reliable handymen opt to do home improvement projects themselves.

After experiencing a 4% decline in 1996, local retail hardware and construction material sales recovered in 1997–up to $823.4 million or a 3.2% increase over the previous year. Sales in 1998 increased a record 6.8%–to $879.5 million–and estimated 1999 figures follow the upward trend at $896 million in sales, with a modest increase of less than 2%. However, industry sources expect local retail hardware and construction material sales to grow 5% annually.

The Permits and Regulations Administration (Arpe by its Spanish acronym) processed 1,522 permits–worth $114.8 million–for additions and alterations during fiscal year 1999.

"Part of the reason for the growth of the DIY market in Puerto Rico is the great sense of accomplishment customers get when they do the jobs themselves," said Don Harrison, THD southern region public relations manager. "You also need knowledgeable people to teach customers how to do the projects and provide good customer service."

The early years: Masso

The first modern effort to tap into the DIY market in Puerto Rico occurred in the late 1970’s. In 1979, Caguas-based Empresas Masso–then a regional hardware store–opened the Caguas Home Center, which it also called HUM–standing for hagalo usted mismo (do-it-yourself). In 1983, a second HUM center was opened in Cayey. But lack of proper marketing of the home center concept eventually caused both locations to be converted to regular Masso hardware stores.

In 1997, Empresas Masso bought the six Builders Square stores in Puerto Rico and renamed them Plaza Masso. The 48-year-old company became the island’s largest megahardware store chain. The six-store Plaza Masso chain has nearly 1,000 employees and annual sales of $120 million.

The Home Depot

In 1998, THD, the world’s largest home improvement retailer, opened its first store in Puerto Rico. Located at Parque Escorial mall in Carolina, the 111,000-square-foot store was such a huge success that in 1999, THD opened a 115,000-square-foot store at Plaza del Sol mall in Bayamon. Both stores are staffed with approximately 300 employees each, nearly twice as many employees-per-store as Plaza Masso stores.

Although THD officials declined to provide local sales figures, average annual sales for a stateside THD store were $45.6 million in 1999, up 10% from the previous year. And local THD stores are among the chain’s top performers.

Women are DIYers too

Once an area dominated almost exclusively by men, hardware stores now cater to both genders. Women are becoming more involved in DIY projects around the house, not only purchasing materials, but actually performing the improvements. Women account for 50% of the local and stateside DIY markets.

"Many single mothers and married women are involved in DIY home improvement projects because they can’t find a handyman to do these jobs or these are too expensive," said Masso. "People are looking for ways to save money while they get the job done right."

THD Bayamon store manager Felix Ramirez agrees with Masso. "Nowadays, women tackle any kind of job because they like doing it themselves and most men don’t have the time or are not around to do these," stated Ramirez. "That’s why THD is here–to teach men, women, and young couples how to do it themselves. It’s a good way to save money."

 There’s more than one way to reach DIYers

Each hardware store chain has its own different way to reach and retain DIYers–their core customers.

Masso uses a simplistic approach, like combining the monthly sales flyer with step-by-step instructions on how to do DIY home projects.

"In January, we began to include how-to instructions for various projects on the back of our monthly flyer," said Masso. "That way, we educate our customers on proper ways to carry out projects and the tools and materials they need. Customers take them home, study them, and become enthused."

The goal is to entice customers to do the projects themselves instead of hiring someone else to do them, Masso added.

How-to instructions cover projects such as waterproofing roofs or installing water tanks. By putting instructions in writing, customers don’t need a course at a specific time at the store, Masso commented.

Another Masso project initiated this year is a three-minute TV segment hosted by agronomist Douglas Candelario, in which minor home improvement projects are showcased. The segment, called Massorient@, airs Wednesdays during Teleonce’s "Tu Mañana" morning news program.

"We have noticed most Puerto Ricans want to simplify their lives," said Candelario. "They learn what they need to do and they do it."

Projects covered in the TV segment range from how to fix a leaky faucet to building an interior garden. At the end of the segment, a telephone number is displayed so those with questions can call. Basically, the how-to show works in conjunction with what Masso stores do through their flyer instructions, Candelario added.

Plaza Masso recently hosted its Festival de las Flores (Flower Festival), a five-day extravaganza of workshops, seminars, exhibitions, and music hosted by Candelario. There are upwards of 300 attendees at these events, which feature experts in various fields as guest speakers and how-to demonstrations.

"There’s more awareness," Candelario commented on the growth of the DIY market. "People are more conscious of simplifying their lives and saving money. Handymen are hard to find and expensive."

Since purchasing the six former Builders Square stores in 1997, Masso diversified its inventory, computerized its inventory control, stepped up its employee-training program, and introduced new products and services to better serve the growing number of DIY customers.

Masso expansion plans include building smaller (60,000 to 70,000-square-foot) stores that follow the pattern of the original Masso stores. The goal is to eventually have stores in every town of Puerto Rico, Masso added. The company has 17 hardware stores, with combined sales of $190 million.

Credited as being the innovators of the home improvement industry on the mainland, THD stores cater to DIYers, as well as construction and building maintenance professionals.

However, in contrast to Masso, THD uses how-to courses at their stores to teach DIYers.

"You might not buy anything at THD, but you’ll get the advice of one of our associates to help with your problem," added Harrison. "And our customers in Puerto Rico really appreciate that."

Floor traffic at local THD stores is always high, especially during weekends, when courses are offered. These courses are a significant marketing tool because they have become very important traffic builders.

"All our stores offer free, in-store courses on such things as tile installation, plumbing, gardening, electrical wiring, and painting," said Felix Ramirez, THD Bayamon store manager. "The demand for our courses is so high, that we repeat them throughout the day to accommodate the demand." Between 30 and 70 customers attend each DIY course.

The most requested course THD offers is tile installation, said Ramirez. The second course is how to install glass blocks. A very popular course during the summer is ceiling fan installation, Ramirez added.

The most popular home remodeling jobs are bathrooms and kitchens, with floor covering coming a close third. Landscaping has become very popular too.

Harrison indicated the two THD stores in Puerto Rico have been incredible success stories for the company, stating they’re are among the most profitable and its employees among the best in the nation. He said part of the credit for this success goes to its Puerto Rican customers, which he described as "great, smart shoppers" that understand, support, and patronize the company.

Besides the DIY courses, THD also publishes a book called "Home Improvements 1,2,3" which provides consumers with valuable information on different home projects. Published in English and Spanish, the book covers subjects such as interior and exterior home painting, plumbing, electrical wiring, weatherproofing, and general maintenance, among others. THD also publishes other project-specific books, like kitchen remodeling and deck building.

Due to the unprecedented success of its first two local stores, THD will open a 119,000-square-foot store in Caguas early next year, Harrison added. The 22-year-old company is expected to open six to eight more stores in Puerto Rico during the next five years.

DIY trend helps local economy

Besides encouraging home improvement projects that help sustain the ongoing construction boom, both THD and Masso use local suppliers, which translates into more economic activity for the island.

"We have developed good, solid relationships with local suppliers," said Ramirez, who has been with THD for nearly 10 years. "THD’s purchasing power means better services and prices to our customers."

"Masso uses local suppliers and will continue to do so," said Masso. "It’s part of our commitment to provide our customers what they want while helping the local economy. It creates jobs."

Thanks to that relationship with local suppliers, both megahardware-store chains were well stocked and able to supply customers what they needed during and after Hurricane Georges. And that translated into repeat customers to both store chains.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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