Taking on a Big Challenge By Tim Hodson

Last month I read an interview with The Home Depot’s chief financial officer, Carol Tome, on Fortune magazine’s website.

Tome has been with the company for 14 years and has been CFO since 2001. She is the only senior manager who has worked for all four of Home Depot’s chief executive officers (Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Bob Nardelli and Frank Blake). “You cut me, and I will bleed orange,” Tome told the magazine writer.

In the Fortune interview, Tome discusses the turmoil that Depot has endured in the past couple of years, but what I thought was really interesting was Tome’s views on today’s consumers and what Home Depot is doing to draw them into stores and keep them coming back.

A Shift for Consumers

Tome said that throughout the downturn, customers have continued to shop at Home Depot stores, but their spending habits have definitely changed. She said customers have shifted away from discretionary big-ticket projects toward $50-or-less repair/renovate/decorate projects. “People are coming into our stores, but they’re shifting how they are spending,” Tome told Fortune. She also said the company has found a bit of a silver lining amid all the foreclosures in the housing market as new homeowners come into their foreclosed homes and need to do some work.

Taking Care of Business

Throughout the economic downturn, Tome said the company has worked diligently to take care of its customers, “making sure the service is there and the products are there at the right price.”

Last year, the home improvement retailer introduced “power hours” (see “How Do Your Stores Measure Up?,” Big Grower, November 2008) to help improve customer service. When store traffic is the heaviest, Depot associates are expected to “spend 100 percent of [their] time taking care of customers” instead of restocking shelves or performing other tasks.

According to Tome, it seems to be working. She said Depot hears from almost 100,000 customers every week, and “the voice of the customer is telling us we are doing the right thing.”

Once a customer is inside the store, Tome says Depot’s main point of difference from its competitor Lowe’s is “that belly-to-belly experience between the associates and the customer.” Tome says customers who are shopping in Depot today “are saying they see a difference.”

“Our challenge is to invite back those customers who may not love us because we’ve disappointed them,” she said. “We need to invite them back so they can experience that point of difference.”

You can read the entire interview with Tome on money.cnn.com — search for

“Renovating Home Depot.”

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