Home Depot: Tools For Tots

July 12, 2006

NEW YORK – On a sunny Saturday this past April, John Ward, who works at The Home Depot in Fort Worth, Texas, was busy with a drill and screws, measuring tape and lumber. He steadied a ladder while a co-worker ascended. Then he set his level down on a timber to check its plumb.

The catch is, he wasn't at his store.

Ward and fellow Home Depot employees had joined other volunteers to build a new swing set and spruce up the surrounding playground at nearby Como Elementary School. The daylong effort was part of a community-improvement program called Racing to Play, which combines the efforts of Home Depot employees and other volunteers from KaBoom!, a national nonprofit group that builds and renovates playgrounds, and Joe Gibbs Racing, the Nascar team owned by Washington Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs.

Home Depot will build playgrounds in 10 cities across the nation this year, but the hammers will not fall silent there. Racing to Play is one of three building-related outreach programs through which the home-improvement giant is reaching out to kids. There's also Kids Workshops, which bring youngsters together to build projects such as wooden slot cars, and Project Dollhouse, a workshop created in conjunction with nonprofit organization Girls Inc. These hands-on efforts involve staffers from Home Depot's marketing, community relations and PR departments, along with volunteers from individual stores.

Business involvement in charity is not unique, but the playground build-outs and workshops for children have had benefits for the big-box retailer that go beyond good pr. The programs have visibly brought the Home Depot logo to locally popular events and extended the company's do-it-yourself platform to a new generation of hammer-wielding youngsters (read: customers). They have also helped differentiate Home Depot as a major player in the competitive home improvement market and define the Atlanta-based giant as an authority whose associates don't just sell building materials but actually know how to build real things with them.

According to retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, New York, the in-store programs in particular make strategic sense. "It's a home run," he said. "It generates loyalty and gives the customers a reason to come to the store, especially given the competition from Wal-Mart and Lowe's."

"These programs come from the top down and bottom up," added KaBoom! CEO and co-founder Darell Hammond. "The [Home Depot] associates get it, they've been doing it, and it's been part of their culture from day one. But the CEO [Bob Nardelli] also gets it and is championing it, giving it the right amount of visibility and fuel."

Indeed, Nardelli's pumped plenty of fuel into Home Depot's children's programs. Since 1997, 14 million projects including toolboxes, fire trucks and mail organizers have been built at the Kids Workshops. More than 800,000 children built their first toolbox at Home Depot. Kids have hammered and glued together more than 625,000 birdhouses and 580,000 step stools. They've also applied their young elbow grease to more educational projects such as bughouses and frames for special "kid-size" copies of the Declaration of Independence.

After presiding over all this kid stuff since joining the company in 2000, Nardelli recognized that Home Depot's community-outreach programs were themselves in need of some fresh paint. However reliably a playground refurbishing could draw local appreciation, Home Depot's initiatives were not capitalizing on the company's valuable partnerships with organizations like Nascar and the Olympics. The program's logos and graphics were dated, and the events were missing opportunities to spotlight the Home Depot brand. "The Kids Workshops are an asset that has been built out over time," said Home Depot director of community affairs Kevin Martinez, whom Nardelli charged with reinvigorating the initiatives. "But in 2005 we took it to a whole new level."

Out went the old graphics showing hammers and nails and in came more contemporary art portraying laughing and smiling children. The new class of Kids Workshops leverage the chain's brand relationships by theming what gets built, such as a 6-inch wooden model of the No. 20 Home Depot Nascar racer in signature orange livery. Kids cobble the components together themselves, then get to take home a car with spinning wheels that they can play with. As part of Home Depot's Olympic sponsorship, kids also constructed projects like Olympic-pin collector boards, miniature bobsleds and Olympic ring-toss games.

While the Kids Workshops are open to any youngster who can get a parent or guardian to accompany him or her to a local store, Racing to Play strives for a higher social purpose by reaching out to children of lesser means in selected communities near Nascar tracks. Administrators coordinate with area service organizations that work with at-risk youth, who became the specific focus of this program. Since its inauguration last April, Racing to Play volunteers have built 10 playgrounds during the 2005 Nascar Nextel Cup Season alone, with more slated this year in communities ranging from Dover, Del., to Miami. The playgrounds (which are also Nascar-themed) are the recreational equivalent to a colonial barn-raising: Each playground rises from the dirt in a single day (and just prior to a scheduled Nascar race.) One of the Gibbs cars is usually on hand-No. 18, No. 11 or No. 20, the Home Depot Chevy. To the thrill of the kids, sometimes all three cars can make it.

Meanwhile, last fall, a third program called Project Dollhouse convened 700 girls ages 5-18 in 50 Home Depot stores across the country. Teams of four girls wielded hammers, nails and glue to create colorful and unique dollhouses, which were then submitted to a national contest. Judging began mid-October, with the top 20 teams invited to an awards ceremony and live auction of their dollhouses in Atlanta this spring. The remaining dollhouses were auctioned on eBay with proceeds benefiting charities.

Events like these have obvious publicity potential, but the greater returns for Home Depot may be on the store level, where what's essentially a warehouse becomes transformed into a family gathering place. "A lot of the schools and parents don't have the time to teach their kids how to use hammers, screwdrivers and paint," said Hugh Miskel, Home Depot's director of merchandising. "We took it upon ourselves to extend our do-it-yourself knowledge to the kids. It does two things: It helps kids form their manual dexterity and also allows parents who may not have the skill or confidence to do the project themselves. The child and parent do it together. It becomes a family project."

Between 85-90% of Home Depot stores participate in the workshop program. Each event averages 75 kids but some stores lure as many as 200. Along with the project kit, kids receive an apron similar to those worn by store associates and an achievement pin.

If Home Depot gets a positive rub in the process, well, that's part of the program, too. "We obviously hope that if they're there, the parents will come in and pick something up that they may need or not know we have on sale," Miskel said. "But really what we hope for is that they develop a passion for this kind of stuff and in the future they will want to build a doghouse or a planter or something like that. We hope it builds something for the future."

Home Depot doesn't track upticks in sales on Kids Workshop Saturdays since between TV, radio, print, catalogs and special offers there are so many marketing and advertising variables involved. "It's really hard for us to say Kids Workshop drove this many footsteps into the store," Miskel said. "We're leaning back and saying it has a positive impact on our image and our shopping."

Martinez agreed. "The payback is reputation, brand building and making our associates feel good, and the longer they feel good the longer they'll stay with us," he said. "Our associates love to work with us because we do things in the community and we support them as volunteers. It does have a very strategic business sense. It's not just do good because you can. It's strategic philanthropy, a smart investment and it's socially responsible."

The Nuts And Bolts

Kicked off in April 2005, Racing to Play is the product of a partnership between Joe Gibbs Racing and children's charity Kaboom! Racing to Play builds Nascar-themed playgrounds in communities near Nascar racetracks. The program has a goal of creating or refurbishing 1,000 playgrounds in 1,000 days, and Home Depot has committed $25 million and one million volunteer hours to the effort. In 2005, Home Depot volunteers hammered together playgrounds in Daytona, Fla., Joliet, Ill. Indianapolis, Fontana, Calif., Richmond, Va., Talladega, Ala., Kansas City, Kan., Atlanta and Phoenix.

Playground builds-which start and end on the same day-conclude with a "board cutting" that's timed to a race weekend at the nearby track. Kids in attendance get to mingle with members of the Joe Gibbs team who attend the builds-often with the No. 20 Home Depot car in tow. For many children, it's the first time they've seen a racecar up close. While the program's principal aim is to "make a lasting, positive impression in the lives of at-risk children," the branding opportunity is not bad, either. When volunteers built a playground at the McCrorey YMCA in Charlotte, N.C., this past May, local television Channel 14 showed up to cover the opening and interviewed Home Depot officials. Nascar also carries coverage of the playground builds on its Web site, www.nascar.com, putting the Home Depot brand before millions of online racing fans.

Kids Workshops are what Home Depot calls its "How-To Clinics," and draw an average of 75 children to each store, though some locations get as many as 200. Kids get to build items ranging from tool boxes to bird houses from prefabricated kits. Meanwhile, they learn how to use tools and, presumably, are also learning that Home Depot is a handy place. Since 1997, 14 million projects have been built in Home Depot stores by kids-all of whom went home with an orange, kid-sized Home Depot work apron that's similar to the ones that the store's sales associates wear.

Like the Kids Workshops, 2005's Project Dollhouse brought young people-girls ages 5 to 18, in this case-into Home Depot locations in order to build something. A one-time partnership with the charity Girls Inc., Project Dollhouse divided participants into building teams, each of which constructed and decorates its own dollhouse. Some 700 girls on 175 teams created projects. Finished dollhouses from each Home Depot location were then then sent for judging onto the national level, after which the top finishers were sold via bidding at a live charity auction.