I remember, and I'm sure many rental people also do, when Home Depot became serious about offering rental departments, close to a decade ago. I remember many in the industry saying the effort could not succeed because Home Depot wouldn't offer the level of service required. People would talk about Sears and U-Haul and other companies that had tried, unsuccessfully, to establish rental programs.
Over the years, I've heard rental veterans tell tales of poor service their customers received when they visited rental departments in retail stores. The equipment was poor quality, they often said. The staff knew nothing at all about the tools and couldn't explain to the customer how to use them effectively. No jobsite delivery or service was offered.
I don't hear as many of those stories any more. It could be that we're accustomed to the presence of retail stores offering rental as part of the competitive landscape and that rental companies have adjusted to them. Those companies that specialize in large equipment aren't really affected by their presence in the market. Companies that specialize in smaller equipment catering to smaller contractors and homeowners are more likely to consider those stores as competitive threats. Some admit having lost a segment of business to them; others say the retail rental efforts are expanding the customer base and that the larger rental pie is good for everybody.
By most accounts, the retail-store rental programs are becoming more effective at customer service than in the past. They have the advantage of being connected to a large retail store that can offer a one-stop shop that a general rental center can't possibly duplicate. They are becoming better at what they do, even if there are some things they cannot do, such as providing jobsite service — although NationsRent at Lowe's stores can provide a degree of it because of their connection with the larger NationsRent organization — or the kind of in-depth job consultation so many rental companies do so well.
Home Depot appears to have done a good job of coordinating between the rental departments and the pro desks to expose customers to higher quality tools and equipment, whether they wish to rent or buy. It has brought in some people with a lot of history in the rental industry and a pretty good understanding of what constitutes a good rental program.
Home Depot is an organization that has been successful at everything it does. If committed to rental, it won't do it halfway. The growth of rental departments in other retail chains suggests the same. They know their limitations, but they also know what they can do well.
This issue's cover story takes a look at the home-improvement rental market, particularly NationsRent, which operates rental departments inside Lowe's stores, and Home Depot. And as part of this month's cover story two members of our editorial staff rented equipment they had never used before. Our associate editor Erin Chapman rented at a Home Depot, and managing editor Brandey Smith at a traditional rental center. Neither identified themselves as rental journalists.
Of course these are only two renters out of the tens of thousands of rental customers out there, but in their experience, the big box store was certainly the equal of the established rental center, if not a tad more conscientious.
A survey of hundreds or thousands of customers would obviously be more convincing than this anecdotal evidence if we wanted to analyze the future of retail-style rental programs. And admittedly we don't pretend to cover all the rental programs in this issue.
But perhaps more convincing evidence is that these programs are growing and not declining. Home Depot is adding a new store with a rental department every couple of days. NationsRent is committed to growing its rental department program, and Do-It-Best and Ace, which we also took a look at, are adding about 70 departments a year, more than one a week.
There are still lots of pros and cons to retail-style rental departments, but the pros seem to be gaining the upper hand in this segment of the industry. And “pro” is part of the story because of another meaning of the word — professional. These programs are being operated in a more professional manner, are professionalizing their customers' approach to what they rent, and are attracting more professional customers. We'll see how they continue to develop in the years to come.