When Strange Turns Normal
Home Depot established a competitive advantage by creating a strange workforce. How was the workforce strange? Home Depot hired building contractors and put them in the aisles to help customers with home improvement problems. For example, Home Depot associates might show customers the right kind of wire needed to run a three-way circuit so that they can walk in one door, turn on the light, then use another switch to turn out the light at another door. They might even sketch the customer a diagram of how the wiring should be run (a Ph.D. does not help me understand this, but I still have the hand-drawn diagram from the Home Depot associate to this day). Or a Home Depot associate might show you which diamond blade works best on a grinder to cut stone (the expensive thin ones are worth it) and talk to you about how to use the grinder (score the stone with the grain about ¼" and then smack it with a hammer and cold chisel). And they might even suggest which thick gloves you should wear.
Helping customers buy the right products and teaching them how to use the products is valuable to consumers because it saves them time (like trips back to the store), prevents costly and dangerous errors, and creates a sense of familiarity and trust with the store. These "contractor grade" associates gave Home Depot a competitive advantage, meaning that people like me would drive a little farther and give this store money because we experienced something different about the store and liked it.
This was a winning practice until Home Depot tried growing at the pace of a new store every week in the midst of a large house-building boom. It became difficult to find enough contractor-grade trades people to put in the aisles. As a consequence, today it is hard for customers to find associates in Home Depot stores who actually have worked in the trades and can solve building problems. Nowadays Home Depot often feels a lot more like most other retailers: IF you can locate (and then chase down) an associate in the store, the most you are going to learn about the product is which aisle you can find it. Nowadays, I shop at Lowe's because it's two miles closer to my house, and I don't notice any difference in the products, price, or advice I get.