On stump grinders...and China

November 28, 2012

I found myself in a Home Depot the other day renting a stump grinder and ruminating on the cultural differences that still separate our world. Don’t see the connection? Read on.

If you’re not familiar with a stump grinder, it is an alarmingly primal piece of equipment. Think whirling, gas-powered, carbide encrusted machine that, well, grinds stumps. I’d lost a couple of trees in my backyard and after cutting them down was left with two unsightly stumps. My wife—the pragmatist in the family—was quick to point out that I could hire a service with the experience to safely, quickly and completely remove the stumps and it probably wouldn’t cost much. Besides, as she pointed out, it wouldn’t mean spending a perfectly good Saturday behind the controls of a dangerous vibrating, smoke belching and cacophonous piece of testosterone inducing power equipment. No contest.

So I found myself at Home Depot behind lots of men and women with wildly different projects but some of the same primal objectives. No doubt some of us were motivated by a desire to save a few bucks or see the job done exactly our way but I suspect many of us were also succumbing to the do-it-yourself bug. As American culture has become increasingly specialized and digital, those of us with desk jobs romanticize manual labor. The ability to prove to our neighbors, spouse, co-workers or ourselves that we’re ‘handy’ has become an odd currency of legitimacy. Big box hardware stores are filled to the brim with largely desk-bound professionals using discretionary time and money painting, building, installing, fixing and, well stump-grinding their way to self-actualization.

As much as the world is shrinking, our cultures (and our markets) remain fragmented, vexing, diverse and unpredictable.

Well, there are certainly enough of them to keep Home Depot’s business model humming here in the US. Abroad, however, it’s a different story. Home Depot has recently decided to close its remaining stores in China, and is pulling out of the market altogether after years of losses. Home Depot conceded that it misread the country's appetite for do-it-yourself products. "China is a do-it-for-me market, not a do-it-yourself market, so we have to adjust," a Home Depot spokeswoman said of China.

Our clients are competing in a global market, so a lot of our work at Design Concepts centers on trying to discover, explore and exploit exactly this type of cultural nuance. As much as the world is shrinking, our cultures (and our markets) remain fragmented, vexing, diverse and unpredictable. And a healthy respect and appreciation for the surprising differences that make all cultures unique can be an important factor for success. As much as the DIY ethos is romanticized in America, it is probably as much a badge of honor in China to demonstrate that you have the means to hire someone to do it for you. Either that or Chinese spouses are more persuasive than their US counterparts.