Home Depot renovated its holiday merchandising, and Black Friday sales followed

The mention of Black Friday usually conjures up images of frenzied shoppers buying a TV at Best Buy, a coffee maker at Walmart, or a sweater at Macy’s.

The Home Depot executives thought the same thing and had accepted being a mere afterthought for consumers during retail’s busiest time of the year.

But over the last few years, the home improvement chain has emerged as a serious player during Black Friday and beyond. What changed? The chain rehabbed their approach to merchandising and it had a dramatic impact on sales.

“Home Depot wasn’t a Black Friday destination,” Ted Decker, the company’s executive vice present for merchandising, tells Fortune. “We weren’t a gifting destination, we didn’t have a holiday decorations program.” Paint, nails, and plywood don’t exactly make for exciting holiday gifts.

That has clearly changed: Home Depot chief executive officer Craig Menear last week called out a strong Black Friday-Cyber Monday performance as a key factor in its blockbuster fourth quarter results, including a 5.3% jump in comparable sales, noting customers’ “excellent response to our Black Friday and holiday events.”

The fourth quarter was, and remains, its slowest period of the year. The second quarter, when people ramp up home projects as spring arrives, is much more important. Still, Home Depot felt it was leaving money on the table by sitting out Black Friday. Why not try to get in on the action with consumers who were already at nearby strip centers or shopping rivals like Target and Best Buy?

To lure people in, Home Depot launched its “Gift Center.” Though the idea has evolved over the years, its most recent incarnation included a seasonal display at the front of each store filled with items that have good gift potential, such as power tools and mechanics tools, as well as products—like batteries—that pair well with gifts from other stores—say, children’s toys.

And just a few years ago, Home Depot started to offer doorbuster deals à la Walmart or Kohl’s: this past Black Friday, for instance, the chain offered a 270-piece Husky mechanics tool set for $99, a steep cut from the usual price of $229.

Home Depot also started to sell more seasonal decorations, in addition to the live Christmas trees that had always been on offer. The stores have done brisk business in new products including artificial trees with LED lights and the giant inflatable characters that wave from front yards throughout the holiday season.

Many of the products Home Depot has given prominent space to were already part of its assortment. But showcasing those items in one prominent place, spurring the kind of impulse shopping Target and Macy’s are known for, brought more shoppers and sales into Home Depot stores, Decker says.

And that approach is used throughout the year, with different regions showcasing seasonal wares when the time is right. The space used for artificial trees in November and December displays winter storage products like totes and shelving after the holidays end. In the South, stores are already using that area to display patio sets.

That improved merchandising has been part of a larger effort to expand Home Depot’s assortment: a few years ago, the company started adding more cleaning products and moving boxes. The reasoning: people who are buying a new home are also moving so sell them related products, as long as they are consistent with its home maintenance and improvement raison d’être.

The efforts have paid off: both Lowe’s and Home Depot have benefitted from the last decade’s booming housing market, yet Home Depot has consistently outperformed Lowe’s in terms of sales growth since the financial crisis ended.

The chain is also getting a ton more mileage from its stores: sales per square foot at Home Depot rose to $447 in 2018, the last year for which data are available, from $279 a decade earlier.

Analysts credit Home Depot’s merchandising know-how for the boost. “The execution in categories like holiday décor, winter home preparation, and other festive assortments was far stronger at Home Depot than Lowe’s,” says Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “This underlines the executional prowess of Home Depot and its ability to take advantage of seasonal events—both things that ultimately drive footfall.”

As for this past holiday season, one category that did well was smart home products, not typically Home Depot’s bailiwick. But, executives thought, why should Best Buy have all the fun? “We’re not going to do electronics like TV’s,” Decker says. “But we will do smart home, like lighting and thermostat control.”

Another category that performed well during the holidays was appliances, a market Sears and J.C. Penney have largely ceded to rivals like Home Depot and Lowe’s.

But big appliances like washing machines, historically purchased only when they’ve broken down, have become a bigger part of holiday season gift giving, Decker says, helped by having better aesthetics than they used to. “They used to be white, white, white. Now we have stainless, matte black, slate, and graphite,” he says. “There is a design, discretionary element to them now.”

And for consumers, discretionary shopping is exactly what Black Friday (and, at times, the rest of the year) is all about.

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