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Pondering this Matter of the Big-Box Era…or is it Big Headache?

TUESDAY, MAY 17, 2011

By Burt Olhiser


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I recently had occasion to become one of the wandering lost souls in a Big-Box DIY store, leading me to muse as I struggled to find a checkout lane about the “Do It Yourself” phenomenon.

My recollection was that the Big Box started going gangbusters as I was coming up through the trades in the late 1960s and 1970s. In hindsight, it seems to me the “movement” was fueled in part by necessity, a dilemma I also experienced from a front-row seat.

It so happened that many of my acquaintances purchased affordable residential properties that were affordable because the houses badly needed work, but the young homeowners could not afford to hire professionals. So instead, they would bravely and often naively take on these tasks themselves (usually screwing things up royally), leaning on the advice of discount-store sales personnel and their own mechanical skills—or lack thereof—on these fixer-uppers. Often after getting into trouble they would at some point cry uncle and reach out to one of their friends for help (I can tell you I sure spent many a weekend repairing and painting properties owned by friends of mine for beers, meals and laughs).

Thus was sown the seed of the large discount home center—the precursor of the Big Box.

The first DIY store of this kind that comes to my mind was not Lowe’s or Home Depot as you might think. No, it was called Standard Brands. A huge retailer here in California, anyway, that sold paint and sundries as well as other home-improvement items. I have no idea what happened to them—all I really recall is that the materials that I used from them (mostly bought by my friends to paint their homes) required at least two coats and sometimes three; but boy, was it cheap!

I recall as well that I lost business as an indirect result of the DIY stores, as clients who had previously had me do all of their work now painted their own homes, as it was made easier for them. That left it to me, thank God, to do the things they really deemed important, like their own homes.

The other thought I had about the onset of the DIY era is how it coincided with the agglomeration of local paint and coatings product manufacturers by the larger companies. In my neck of the woods we had the F.W. Dunne Company, founded in 1921 and gone in the early 1990s. Also to disappear were Sinclair’s, Roy Anderson, Nason, and Freestone Paints, along with some other stalwarts who all made good materials and some specialty coatings that are still difficult to do without.

Does anyone else recall Sinclair’s Epo-Prime or Dunne’s Galvanized Metal primer? These were great materials that still haven’t been equaled in my experience and knowledge.

So my question for this period is:  

How has the rise in popularity of DIY affected your business?

• No change

• Business is down

• Business is up

• The change to new materials has been costly

ABOUT THE BLOGGER

Burt Olhiser

Burt Olhiser founded Vantage Point Consulting in 1991 after a 15-year stint as a successful Northern California painting contractor. He initially provided safety, training and business consulting services to fellow contractors. He was an instructor at UC Davis’ EPA Western Regional Lead Training Center until the program’s closure, at which time he moved to UC Berkeley's Center for Occupational & Environmental Health program where he still serves today. Burt also served as Environmental Health & Safety Director and Quality Control Manager for one of California's largest industrial painting contractors. A member of SSPC, CSI, PDCA, and NACE, Burt is a CDPH Lead Related Construction Professional, Certified Asbestos Consultant, Certified Professional Estimator, and NACE Certified Coatings Inspector. Burt is a contributing editor to D+D.

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Tagged categories: Contractors; Paint application; Purdy

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