Hechinger takes high-tech route to lure customers Computer design aids do-it-yourselfers

August 22, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

You've probably never wanted to know what your dream kitchen looks like from the view of a housefly on your ceiling, but Dean Gawlas can show you just the same.

After fiddling with a computer screen, the fly's view of the cabinet and appliance layout of a modest-sized kitchen pops up on the screen. The picture has an eerie, almost photographic realism.

In a snap, Mr. Gawlas, a certified kitchen designer for Hechinger's, the Landover-based home improvement

chain, can shift the view to almost any angle and make dozens of changes to suit a customer's whims.

Don't like the way the cabinets are stacked? A few strokes of the mouse, and the cabinets can be rearranged, styles changed. Want the refrigerator moved? Done. Would the new digs get a boost with a window added over the sink? Have a look. The cost for the service: zip.

"The beauty of this is that the customer can see exactly what they have in mind and make adjustments before they make a purchase," says Mr. Gawlas. "It cuts down on mistakes for the customer and increases sales for us."

Gaining an edge in customer service while increasing sales is exactly why Hechinger's is banking the future of the 81-year-old company on a new line of stores equipped with computerized gadgetry to aid customers in designing everything from decks to bathrooms and staffed by experts such as Mr. Gawlas.

Hechinger's calls the new line of stores Home Project Centers. The Columbia Home Project Center that will open tomorrow is the first built from the ground up in Maryland.

Estimated price of the venture: $9 million.

The payoff: Sales are expected, says Chief Executive Officer John Hechinger Jr., to improve 40 percent in the first year compared to sales at the Hechinger's on Dobbin Road, which will close once the Home Project Center opens.

The company has converted nine Hechinger's stores in Maryland toHome Project Centers, but considers the Columbia store, on Snowden River Parkway, a model for all future stores. The company operates 50 Hechinger stores, and 21 Home Project Centers in Maryland and Virginia.

Mr. Hechinger credits the Home Project Centers with helping to improve the company's profit picture. Second quarter earnings were up 16 percent, showing a profit of $17.9 million for the period ending July 31.

Kevin McConnell, district sales manager for Hechinger's, says the computerized design service featured at Home Project Centers has bolstered sales in cabinets and other design-aided projects by more than 60 percent compared to traditional Hechinger's stores.

"We are catering on a much larger scale to the heavy do-it-yourselfer; people who are willing to rehab their entire kitchen or bathroom and are confident they can do it themselves. They are looking for help on the

front end designing and pricing the project with experts," Mr. McConnell says.

As the company gained experience with conversions, it pegged specific areas for improvement with an eye toward building a prototype store for the future.

The Columbia store is the third Home Project Center that the chain has built from the ground up -- the two others are in Dale City and Fair Lakes, Va.

"We're very committed to the Home Project Centers. It's the future of the company " Mr. Hechinger says. "People don't want just a smiling face showing them where the light bulbs are. They want price, convenience and people in the store who can answer some pretty sophisticated questions about a project."

As the industry became more competitive locally in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the entrance of other large home improvement supply stores such as Home Depot, Hechinger's had to rethink how its stores were set up and staffed.

After surveying customers several years ago, the company found what they hungered for were stores that were more logically organized and where employees could be found who were highly knowledgeable about home improvement projects, not just gofers, Mr. Hechinger says.

To increase its customer base of light contractors and homeowners who manage their own improvement projects, Hechinger's also added higher grades of product lines, particularly in its tool inventory, and significantly broadened its range of manufacturer and distributor catalogs so customers could custom order products.

The new 130-square-foot Columbia store will be almost double the size of the store on Dobbin Road.

The Home Project Center has six project areas: kitchens, baths, decks, millwork, lawns and gardens, and decorator. There is also an area where general building supplies, such as roof shingles and floor board, are stocked.

Managers who have an expertise in the project area they will serve will run the gamut, from a horticulturist in the greenhouse to Mr. Gawlas, the kitchen design guru.

He was recruited by Hechinger's from his job with his family's kitchen showroom business in Washington, which catered to the interior design trade. He'll head the kitchen design project area at the Columbia store.

"It's a nice opportunity to make a name for myself. As a rep with bTC my family's business, I would go in and design a job for a client and get pat on back. Here I'll have more contact with the actual clients and get recognition for a job well done."

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