We explored Lowes foot traffic compared to The Home Depot to see who wins at the store visitation game. Is The Home Depot the superior big box hardware brand or are they just better at site selection around urban centers than Lowes?
Lowes was founded in 1946, The Home Depot in 1978. Despite that 32 year head start, Lowes has consistently lost ground to The Home Depot for several years, now running a distant second nationally in the big box hardware category.
In addition to having more stores, The Home Depot’s average per store sales are higher, so there is more money coming in per location, including in markets where the two brands compete head to head, which are plentiful.
In this analysis, we used visitation data from Q1 of 2021 and 2022, and pinpointed The Home Depot and Lowes stores in competitive markets, to see how site selection and real estate investment decisions are influencing foot traffic outcomes for each brand in 2023.
The Home Depot exploded out of the gate to become the sector’s lead horse in terms of identifying, acquiring and developing real estate for new sites.
Because Lowe’s has historically lagged in the same capacity, the brand often finds itself with tier 2 commercial real estate options. The outcome is that The Home Depot takes all the good real estate and Lowe’s has to settle for what’s left.
It’s only where and when Lowe’s is able to put itself in areas with foot traffic as good or better than The Home Depot that the brand wins competitive markets.
Let’s look at a map of the Birmingham, Alabama area to illustrate this point. Total foot traffic wise, this market is a dead 50/50 heat. What are the characteristics that allow Lowes to compete here?
The battle for Birmingham
Birmingham is part of Jefferson County which has a population of ~700,000. There are several routes and commercial developments on the way in and out of the city. On the map below, The Home Depot locations are the bigger pins, the Lowes locations are the smaller pins. You can see the difference in relative store location easily.
The Home Depot has most of the exits covered. Heading east, west, or south of the city and towards Birmingham’s suburbs, the first brand you encounter is Home Depot. All locations are on major routes and near to population centers.
The Home Depot cedes the north of the area, though a store towards Fultondale or Graysville may make sense. In two areas, Lowes and the Home Depot are nearly stacked on top of each other -- near Trussville to the northeast, where Lowes sneaks inside The Home Depot’s perimeter, and again to the southeast where The Home Depot is a little closer to a major route and the city center.
The one central location where Lowes breaks through to position itself more strategically than The Home Depot is directly south of the city in the area outside Homewood and Vestavia Hills. Here Lowe’s taps a smaller but meaningful suburban location to steal some potential traffic from The Home Depot’s own location just off busy Interstate 459. In a market this tight, this location - along with being unchallenged to the north - is the difference that keeps Lowe’s neck and neck with the bigger brand.
Next, let’s look at another regional market where a similar competitive site location scenario plays out.
The battle for Greenville
The county and city of Greenville, SC is a little less populated than Birmingham but shares several market characteristics: both are in the southeast, both have growing populations, and both are centrally located to significant transit routes. The competition between Lowes and the Home Depot is also fierce here.
At the state level, Lowes wins total foot traffic by ~2:1 over the average Q1. In the state’s largest county and city, however, the margin of victory drops to barely 2%. How does The Home Depot manage to close the gap by that much in Greenville? Let’s have a look at the map.
As in Birmingham, we see a pattern of The Home Depot locations that leverage prime real estate along major routes to the north, northeast, south, and southeast of the city. Lowes counter with locations of their own near The Home Depots’ in three directions, but once again it is an opportunistic tier 2 site selection that manages to carry Lowe’s slim overall market share lead.
Just about five miles east of Grennville’s city center is Haywood Mall, host to a Lowes location, making it the nearest big box hardware store to downtown.
Arguably, this Lowes is a more convenient trip if you are anywhere downtown, south or east of the city to begin with.
In addition to drawing its own targeted foot traffic, this location benefits from the broad appeal of a mall with several major brands present, i.e. cross-visitation is meaningful here.
It may well be this Haywood Mall location that allows Lowes to carry the small majority of Greenville area foot traffic on the whole.
Noting that penetrating The Home Depot’s urban inner ring is also key to the Birmingham market, we now have to ask ourselves how Lowes can go about finding more real estate and site opportunities of a similar type.