Home improvement sales going through the roof

As the housing market climbs out of the cellar, home improvement sales are through the roof.

Onlinepurchases of home-related goods took priority overback-to-school-spending for families this summer, according to a studyreleased Tuesday from IBM Smarter Commerce.

It'sa trend that's also driving sales in brick-and-mortar home improvementstores from mom-and-pop hardware shops to Home Depot, which hammered outits highest quarterly earnings report last month in five years at $1.5billion. The home improvement market was big enough in Uniontown, Ohio,for Wayne and Howard Miller to open what they call the largestindependently owned hardware store, Hartville Hardware, in July, with aseven-acre retail space.

Outdoor furnitureproducer Lane Venture has seen its best sales in years, due to thegrowing popularity of "outdoor rooms," entertaining spaces furnishedwith patio recliners and swivel rockers, says President Gary McCray.

Morepeople are buying items for their homes online. The IBM report showedsales were up 30% in July from last year and 25.5% in August forhome-related items, a category which includes anything from house paintto appliances to furniture. The report analyzes online shopping trendsfrom more than 500 leading retailers.

Thehome-related sales stand out in an otherwise underwhelming shoppingseason, says IBM global strategy program director Jay Henderson. He saysconsumers are "hunkering down" in the still-struggling housing market.

"People are choosing not to move into a new house, and instead re-invest in their homes," says Henderson.

ForJamie Saunders, 38, it wasn't a choice. She and her husband wanted toput their house in Alpharetta, Ga., on the market and take advantage oflow mortgage interest rates, but found they didn't qualify for the loanthey wanted.

"Despite having never missed amortgage payment in 11 years, never having been out of employment sinceof working age, we would not qualify for a loan to upgrade our currentliving situation," she says. Instead, she opted to buy new siding andwindows, as well as a washer and dryer, in the past year.

How some home improvement businesses are doing:

*Home Depot. Giles Bowerman, Home Depot's senior vice president ofmerchandising, says sales are up in almost every area. Customers arechanging, too, he says. Many people who used to be builders are nowremodelers.

* Lane Venture. Some homefurnishings are more popular than others.The sister company tocedar-chest producer Lane Furniture, it has overhauled its productassortment to predominantly offer patio furniture in the past few years.As a result, this year's sales have been "up significantly over recentyears," McCray says. He attributes the success to the growing popularityof "outdoor rooms" furnished with patio recliners and swivel rockersfor an entertaining space more like a den than a picnic area.

*Hartville Hardware.The nation's largest independent hardware storebased in Uniontown, Ohio opened doors to its new seven-acre retail spacein July, says Wayne Miller, who owns the store with his brother Howard.The store is so big, there are two houses inside of it: a seven-roomhouse made and furnished with American-made products; and an 1860historic log cabin.

While home improvement maybe hot for some consumers, others say the state of the economy stillrestricts their purchases. Dana Remaley, of New Stanton, Pa., says herhusband was recently laid off from his job as a plumber, "Even if wewanted or even needed a new large-purchase item, we could not affordit."


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