Are we being served?

DIY superstores still attract hordes every weekend - but if you need advice, forget it, says Christopher Middleton
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The Independent Online

Sunday afternoon at a Homebase in south London, and a crowd is gathering in the garden-furniture area. At first, it is hard to make out what is attracting all the attention, but as you peer over the forest of heads, you can see an elderly man being backed up against the barbecues - answering questions.

Sunday afternoon at a Homebase in south London, and a crowd is gathering in the garden-furniture area. At first, it is hard to make out what is attracting all the attention, but as you peer over the forest of heads, you can see an elderly man being backed up against the barbecues - answering questions.

Yes, in the information tundra that is your average DIY superstore, the sight of a staff member who knows what he's talking about is the equivalent of lush, waving palm trees in the Sahara. No matter that he's just a weekend helper, wearing only a small badge as opposed to the full, budgerigar-green uniform of the permanent employees; this is a man who can tell you where to find the curtain rails, what voltage you need for a shaver socket, and which liquids are best applied with a bristle paintbrush and which with synthetic. No wonder he is being mobbed.

The fact is that the entire £11.5bn-a-year British DIY industry is based on the totally bodged-up, wobbly premise that when it comes to home improvements, we all know what we're doing. Which, of course, we don't. Sure, we roll in confidently through the superstore doors, like cowboys entering a saloon, but once we're inside, panic fills our chaps. All those tall shelves, all that shiny equipment - and so few people to ask.

Every now and then, you catch sight of an assistant scurrying, White Rabbit-like, through the aisles, but when you rush over to investigate, you find nothing but the faintest waft of creosote to mark where they've been. Not that people in uniforms are completely absent; the first person you see when you walk into my local B&Q is a burly man wearing what looks like a Tennessee State Trooper's uniform, minus only the revolver. What's more, he pops up at regular intervals during your visit, clearly convinced that your spending so long in screws-and-nails is the result not of terminal dithering but of your intention to pocket trouserloads of brass sprockets.

The only other visible employees in these places are the cashiers - who are clearly trained to know nothing in case they are captured and tortured - and the obligatory woman sitting in front of a computer, who can sell you an entire kitchen but can't tell you what wattage light bulb you need for a table lamp.

Ah yes, say the stores - but you're not totally left to fend for yourself. Why, just past the B&Q checkout, there's a whole rack of helpful leaflets entitled "Building a Carport" and "Installing a Hot Water Cylinder", explaining how to achieve said tasks, while noting that "plumbing skills are required and electrical knowledge would be useful". A message, you can't help thinking, that should be displayed not in small print on a leaflet, but in huge red capitals at the entrance to every DIY outlet in the land.

I mean, what other profession would work in the same way? Do we have medical-equipment superstores full of scalpels and life-support machines with little leaflets at the door entitled "Open Heart Surgery in 10 Easy Steps"? Are there car-parts warehouses where you can pick up a 657-product checklist enabling you to "Construct Your Own Rolls-Royce"? Of course not; when we need surgery or a brand new car, we get qualified people to do the work for us.

So why, then, don't the DIY giants go one, big, helpful step down the home-decorating path and start offering us little people not just the parts, but labour, too? After all, just think how many more shelving units they could shift if they sold not just the wood and the screws, but a person to fit them all together.

A clue perhaps lies in the B&Q recruitment brochure, which says, "Our customers know they'll always find what they need." This, of course, is total rubbish - we are not only unable to find what we need, we don't know what we need in the first place. Why? Because there's no one to ask.

Where, you wonder, are all those reliably bearded or maternal-looking employees in the B&Q ads? Presumably all working in the same super-helpful store in the Outer Hebrides, because they're certainly not in the Wimbledon branch. As for my local Homebase, visiting the outdoor section is like stepping aboard a Marie Celeste where the crew were playing Radio 2 just before they abandoned ship. Where are the highly motivated staff that are mentioned on the poster at the entrance, enthusing over their "new and exhilarating products"? Nowhere to be seen, is the answer.

Even if you are lucky enough to corner a staff member, and you ask them the difference between matt and gloss emulsion, they carry on like a hospital porter who has been asked the difference between the parietal lobe and the cerebellum.

The truth is, more and more of us don't want to DIY, we want someone to Do It For Us. According to the Construction Industries Training Board, demand is currently so great that we need 83,000 new entrants to the industry each year; and there's not much chance of that happening, seeing as most British teenagers would prefer to present TV programmes than fit U-bends.

Which being the case, here's my own contribution to the immigration debate. Forget all this stuff about making would-be Brits take an English test. If they can put up a shelf - let them in.

DIY danger

* It's safer to get someone else to do it. Here are the 10 most common causes of the UK's annual 220,000 DIY injuries:

Ladders: 41,000

Knives/scalpels: 21,300

Saws: 15,100

Grinder: 6,400

Hammers: 5,800

Chisels: 3,900

Screwdrivers: 3,400

Power drills: 3,000

Axes: 2,200

Planes: 2,100

Welding: 2,000

Source: RoSPA

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