Late last week, US-based home improvement giant Home Depot announced that it would take a $ 160 million after-tax charge and close seven of its big-box home improvement stores. Home Depot entered China with high hopes in 2006 when it acquired 12 stores across China. Over the years it had reduced the number of stores to the seven it is now closing. Home Depot, which of course also sources heavily from China, does have plans to keep two speciality stores in the city of Tianjin and also to be active in online retail, but for now the dreams of making it big in a market of more than a billion consumers are over. While it is true that many retailers in China are currently struggling as slow economic growth is curbing consumer spending, the roots of Home Depot’s failure may be somewhere else.
The first reason may be that China is not so much a Do-it-Yourself (DIY) culture, but more of a HIDBO (Have-it-done-by-others) culture. Cheap labor is abundant, but even more importantly for a culture that values status and prestige, tiling your own bathroom or painting your own window frames is not necessarily a desired activity for the masses. You may ask why it then is that IKEA is hugely successful in China – a company that also makes you assemble your own furniture. The answer leads us to the second reason behind Home Depot’s failure. Chinese are looking for guidance in acquiring Western lifestyles. IKEA provides this guidance by showing their customers how to decorate their homes in a Western fashion. The fact that you have to assemble your own furniture is a little more appealing when you know what the final product is supposed to look like. Besides, there’s always someone to assemble your IKEA furniture for you. Home Depot, however, leaves consumers largely alone and guessing about the final look and feel. Also, most Chinese live in small apartments and don’t have the room to keep tools or work on DIY projects. And ultimately, Home Depot is selling commodities – nails, screws and paints aren’t necessarily the same cultural icons like IKEA, McDonalds or KFC that so many Chinese middle class families are looking for. There may also be a third reason. Generally, as has also been featured in this blog, retail somehow doesn’t travel easily across international borders. But that’s for another time.