Bunnings has a mountain to climb when it comes to converting the Homebase estate to match the store format it revealed earlier this year in St Albans. 

Back in the day, there was a button attached to one of the pillars in the Homebase store located just behind the O2 centre on London’s Finchley Road.

When pressed, the legend above it claimed that somebody would be along to help within two minutes. Did it ever work? Not a chance. And in many ways this characterised a large but curiously uncharismatic interior, cheek by jowl with the Jubilee line as it heads north.

The button, by the way, seems to have been removed. Probably for the best, as the service remains lamentable. Although a further refinement has been added – a large percentage of the stock seems to be reduced.

Welcome to the world of pre-Bunnings-makeover Homebase.

The Australian DIY outfit is in the throes of converting the Homebase stores it bought last year while seeking to establish itself as a player in the DIY arena through its Bunnings fascia.

This would be a tough enough act for a UK outfit with an existing and well-known chain, but when the task is to convert a well-known name, albeit somewhat tarnished, to a new and largely unknown logo, it begins to look a little like fighting a war on too many fronts.

Bunnings’ parent, Wesfarmers, has cited “difficult trading conditions” and the clearance of discontinued stock in its Homebase stores as the major reason for a like-for-like decline in sales. But is there a bit more to it than this?

Homebase Finchley Road2

Homebase Finchley Road2

The feel is of a discount store

Too many BBQs

When Bunnings welcomed its first UK shoppers in St Albans, one thing was apparent – there were a lot of barbecues. Nothing wrong with this perhaps, but it was February when al fresco dining opportunities in this country tend to be a little thin on the ground.

The Homebase on the Finchley Road has a large number of reduced barbecues avaialble – it’s hard not to wonder if the two things are in some way related.

The rest of the store is as uninviting as it was when it was part of Home Retail Group, and the first thing that the visitor is likely to notice is a string of green balloons that grace the balustrade which fronts the mezzanine floor on the right hand side of store.

“The effect was that of Lidl or Aldi when they first arrived in the UK and before they smartened themselves up – a discount impression”

The rest of this large floor is standard Homebase, with an aisle for paint (step forward upscale brand Farrow & Ball, as this branch is close to very well-heeled Hampstead), another for tools, another for electricals and so on, until the area towards the rear of the store is reached.

The few staff who were on the floor were busy unboxing faux Christmas trees and preparing a sizeable space for the season of goodwill.

At the back of the store there was an area set aside for mechanical garden tools which was almost empty – destocking might be the ultimate aim, but this looked as if some of the products had been taken off the floor in a piecemeal fashion.

This, perhaps, is the outcome of the yellow reduced signs that seemed to be on a majority of the stock across the store. These were handwritten and had been applied to the ends of aisles, boxes that stood unopened in the middle of the aisles and to individual products on shelves.

The effect was that of Lidl or Aldi when they first arrived in the UK and before they smartened themselves up – a discount impression.

A cheap look for big prices

Yet looks can be deceptive. Heading upstairs onto the mezzanine level, home to fitted kitchens, another yellow sign informed shoppers that kitchens were available ‘From £576.42’.

Quite apart from the fact that this is a very curiously exact figure (presumably originally priced in a different currency and taken, to the penny, at the prevailing exchange rate on the day when the products made it to the floor), at this price this is a ‘considered’ purchase.

A quick examination of the offer revealed the fact that it is possible to spend comfortably in excess of £3,000 on a kitchen in a store environment that looks low-rent.

Unsurprisingly, and in spite of kitchen planning advice being available, there were no customers on the mezzanine floor.

Outside, at the back of the store, was the standard garden plants and building and fencing materials yard.

This was unremarkable and the kind of thing that every DIY retailer has. As such, it was probably the best part of the store.

Bunnings has its work cut out converting Homebase stores like this one. They are large, need an almost complete makeover and will also require a rethink as far as product mix is concerned.

Even allowing for deep pockets and fit-outs that will not hit the capital expenditure budget too heavily, the job of turning in excess of 200 stores like this into something approaching the format that was unveiled in St Albans is a major undertaking.

The question has to be whether Wesfarmers has bitten off more than it can chew with Homebase, and there is no ready answer. Bunnings’ UK management has its work cut out on the evidence of the Finchley Road outpost.