Tianjin, China – Much has been written about Home Depot Inc.‘s ill-fated entry into China, where it closed the last of 12 big-box stores nearly a year ago.
Nowhere can this be seen better than in the city of Tianjin, where the Atlanta-based home improvement retailer had five outlets.
Although it’s a metro area of more than 10 million people, Tianjin wasn’t chosen for its thriving home-improvement scene. It was the home base of the Home Way, the chain Home Depot purchased to make its big splash into the Chinese market in 2006.
Although one has been demolished to make way for a mall, most of the shuttered stores still sit empty, eerily frozen in a time when one was the scene of a “hostage situation.” Confirmed by Home Depot CFO Carol Tome, Chinese media have reported that a few of Home Depot’s 850 employees used cars to block doors, locking company leaders in for 80 hours after being abruptly informed of the store closings.
In the Tianmu district, the remains of one of the largest and most conspicuous Home Depots sits across a major highway from the government center and next to a bustling McDonald’s, which make its emptiness all the more disheartening.
Faded outlines of Chinese characters reveal what was once sold: appliances, building materials, heating elements. Doors remain padlocked and chained, and a sign in the window roughly translates to, “This store has gone bankrupt and doesn’t do business anymore.”
It’s a far cry from the heady days of 2006; one Home Depot here reportedly had a full-scale American home built inside to wow Chinese customers.
With their peeling paint, the faded buildings are now sad monuments to the perils of globalization, but Tianijn is also the only place where Home Depot’s China efforts are showing signs of new life.
While the country is “too big to ignore,” Home Depot has gone small.
Instead of massive stores a la suburban America, it has opened comparatively tiny outlets in upscale malls that researchers studying its China woes have long recommended. One store in the Macalline mall sells only flooring and Behr paint (at prices more than double those in the U.S.)
It remains to be seen whether these baby steps in specialty retail will amount to a corporate remodel for Home Depot in China, potentially paving the way for the resurrection of the big box.
Trevor Williams is traveling in China on assignment for Global Atlanta.
The Global Atlanta China blog is supported by Windham Brannon, an Atlanta-based CPA firm offering a variety of services for international firms as well as Atlanta-based companies looking abroad.