Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Christmas kicks off at Home Depot

Ari Shainwald is the guy who brings Christmas to Home Depots in the Charlotte area. If Santa was appointing helper elves for home improvement store merchandising, Shainwald would be a strong candidate to lead the team.

On Monday, after the Home Depot on Rivergate Parkway in Steele Creek closed, Shainwald's team got to work, building a new Christmas display area at the front of the store for the wreaths, lights, stockings and inflatables arriving by the pallet.

Their work is part of the unseen retail world, which most people don't encounter unless they've spent time working in a store. And it's extremely detailed, with "planograms" dictating everything from the placement of merchandise on shelves to the height of each display, down to the inch.

Home Depot spokesman Craig Fishel had invited me by the store to see the store's holiday merchandise "reset," as it's known. I went to check out the process myself, and found that as well as being very detailed, the reset is very loud, as rubber mallets slam steel frames together and metal shelves are thrown on top of them.

"Here, we need to follow the schematic to a T," said Shainwald, gesturing to the 8-foot by 8-foot "bay" where the stocking display would soon be. "When we leave this store on Wednesday morning, it's Christmas."

The team of 15 works 10-hour overnight shifts, putting in all of the holiday merchandise Home Depot will have in one two-night session. Workers take their lunch break at 1:30 a.m. They've almost completed the eight stores in the Charlotte market, Shainwald said.

The holiday season has grown in importance for Atlanta-based Home Depot since the chain expanded its Christmas seasonal merchandise five years ago. Last year, Home Depot sold 2 million live trees and 40,000 miles worth of light strings, Fishel said.

Until 3 1/2 years ago, the Merchandise Execution Team - Shainwald's domain - was outsourced to third-party vendors. Home Depot brought the service back in-house to ensure more consistency, Shainwald said.

He starts planning two to three months before actually resetting anything in the store, walking through the space and laying out the designs with the manager. When the merchandise arrives, it's in color-coded pallets with scannable codes - one swiped of a handheld reader tells Shainwald where it goes - and routed to the proper spot.

"A lot of technology goes into this," Shainwald said.

If you've ever visited a shopping mall or department store, you have some sense that American seasons are now determined as much by retailers as by the tilt of the Earth's axis.

At Home Depot, workers haul away summer and fall, literally, as the patio furniture, grass seed and fire pits are carted away and replaced with wreaths, ornaments and strings of LED lights. Walk in on Monday and it's the tail end of fall; walk in two days later and its Christmas.

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