We got a sneak peek of French hardware store Leroy Merlin about to open in Joburg – and Builders Warehouse should be worried

Business Insider SA
  • Leroy Merlin, which has been retailing hardware in France since 1960, will open its first full South African store in Johannesburg on September 28.
  • We got a sneak peek of the warehouse-style monument to DIY as the final touches were still being put on the store.
  • We found a store that will be familiar to anyone who has ever stepped into a Builders Warehouse – but with a focus on choice and service that should make that Walmart-owned brand nervous.

It isn't exactly a household name in South Africa, but Leroy Merlin has been selling hardware under that name in France since 1960, and it traces its history back to 1923, in the form of a store named Au Stock Américain.

In 1989 it broke out of its home country for the first time, and it now has big-box stores in Russia, Brazil, and a number of European countries.

Today, by its count, Leroy Merlin's parent group ADEO is the third-largest "DIY actor" in the world.

See also: We shopped at Yuppiechef’s new physical stores in SA malls – here's how their shops differ from other retailers

And at the end of September, its first full-fledged store will open in South Africa.

The finishing touches are still being put on the store, but we got a sneak peek. Here is what we found.

The first store is carefully located with easy access of the highways that ring Johannesburg.

(Google Maps)

Leroy Merlin is known for choosing locations on the outskirts of cities, where rents are cheap for its big stores. Its spot in Greenstone east of Johannesburg is convenient to reach, and will even soon be on a Gautrain bus route, but comes with cavernous parking and storage.

There are some whimsical touches in the displays – and some disruptive promises underneath.

For both kitchens and cupboards, Leroy Merlin promises self-assembly of flat-pack modular units, no tools required. And at any time somewhere north of 90% of everything on the shop floor will be in stock and so available immediately, the SA CEO Cedric Sennepin tells Business Insider South Africa.

That means customers can walk in, figure out the closet configuration they want, leave with a couple of boxes that fit into a car, and assemble it themselves on the same day.

Aesthetics come first, which can be a little weird at times.

Leroy Merlin sells paint by colour. That seems obvious in theory, but is weird in practice when you are used to heading to the outdoor-wall paint section and then picking the colour, or picking your colour using the colour cards arranged by manufacturer, in a display set up by the manufacturer.

To buy paint from the French newcomer you select the colour, then the application, then the finish. And then you get directed to a manufacturer. 

There are many colours. Everywhere.

We're used to mass-market hardware retailers offering us toilet seats in white, white, and white, and maybe, if they are feeling particularly daring, black.

But Leroy Merlin seems to think colour is not a sin.

Nor is it afraid of designs that are, at times, not quite within our definition of "tasteful".

When it comes to kitchen sinks at least, Leroy Merlin seems to stick to the more traditional approach – even if some of its sinks have glass tops. And even if the range of sinks is the biggest in the country, as the company claims.

The group believes it can change some South African consumer habits by introducing choice.

Sennepin is a little surprised by how little wallpaper South Africa uses. But that may be, at least in part, because of the lack of choice easily available in SA, he says. So Leroy Merlin will start off with what is an unusually large array of wallpaper, and see if there is pent-up demand. If there is, the company may then expand still further on the range.

Leroy Merlin will introduce a number of new brands into the market.

The in-house and associated brands that come with Leroy Merlin includes the Sterwins garden tools range, mid-price equipment that tends towards better-than-usual design...

... and Standers, a brand for everything from fixtures and fasteners to padlocks.

The building-materials "yard" is not what we're used to.

For starters, it is indoors, all of it, in a huge basement underneath the parking lot.

For another, it is drive-thru.

The usual South African experience with building materials includes any number of trips between an (outdoor, weather-exposed) yard and indoor till points, trying to figure out what is in stock, what it costs, and getting the yard operator to communicate that cost to the till operator. At which point you can fetch your car or bakkie, queue to get it into the yard, present your proof of payment, load up, present your proof of payment at the exit, and finally escape a system apparently designed to frustrate.

At Leroy Merlin, in theory at least, you drive in, load up with timber or sand or a cement mixer, pay, and leave.

We don't yet know if it works, but we're sure looking forward to trying it.

The approach to service includes assistants who will help you Google stuff.

Large hardware and DIY stores are not exactly known for their sterling service. But Leroy Merlin's embrace of technology will make all the difference, Sennepin promises.

The team of 130 people in the store will each have expertise in some area of hardware – and a smart device. That comes with an app, through which any member of staff can pull up a price and description, and helpful information, about any item of stock.

But perhaps more importantly, it also comes with Google.

"Sometimes you just need to figure out a problem," says Sennepin. So staff will explore solutions with customers both by opening up boxes and checking instructions and going online to find information and advice, as appropriate.

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