You never get a “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment but walk around Britain’s inaugural Bunnings store for a few minutes and you will soon spot a few differences with its Australian warehouses.
From the outside, the building itself, in an industrial estate in the ancient Roman town of St Albans, north of London, looks exactly the same as any Australian store.
The big flatbed trolleys out the front are the same. There are thousands of plastic tub storage containers at the entrance. Like the stores Down Under, the building is cavernous and pleasantly bright. On Saturdays you will smell sausages and onions from the charity barbecue sizzling in the tent out the front.
The first obvious difference is immediately inside the converted Homebase store: there are thousands of bottles of anti-freeze. West Australians rarely have to scrape ice from their windscreens but for months of the year it is a daily ritual in Britain and, having opened in winter, Bunnings obviously realised the opportunity.
The second difference is the size of the gardening section. The footprint of a typical Australian store is two-thirds indoor, one-third outdoor. In St Albans, the proportions are reversed in a nod to the local love of the great English garden.
The next obvious difference is the enormity of the lighting section. While a typical Australian warehouse gives a nod to in-house lighting and concentrates on patio and garden lights, walk into St Albans and you see chandeliers dominating an entire aisle. Disproportionate also is the size and range of the bathroom fixtures aisle. Australians spend their weekends upgrading their sprawling backyards. Brits, on the other hand, love a good bathroom vanity.
There are more subtle differences in the range of products, with kits to combat rising damp and double-insulated windows on display, but generally the shelves are stocked similarly to Australian stores.
Wesfarmers has gone to great lengths to emulate the tried-and- tested Australian layout and in doing so is diverging from British hardware store tradition.
While many British stores change stock according to season, Bunnings intends to keep a more stable range.
It appears to be paying dividends, with customers choosing to buy barbecues in the depths of winter simply because, for the first time, they are available in colder months.
Bunnings is bucking the hardware trend by stocking a full range of items in each category — not just the popular or cheap version. Like at an Australian store, Britain’s DIY set will be able to buy a cheap Ozito power tool for the price of a couple of pints, or spend substantially more on a German brand.
Ensuring the staff know the strengths and weaknesses of the different brands is one of the big challenges facing the Bunnings UK executive team, led by Wesfarmers veteran Peter “PJ” Davis. Ask an Australian Bunnings team member and they will usually be able to get an answer — even when the question is as obtuse as “I need the thingame that goes under the whatsit that sits near the plastic doover under the sink”.
It may take some time for the British workers to get the drift.