Does hardware have a softer side? Home Depot thinks so. It is testing a warm-and-fuzzy approach to selling hammers, lighting and garage doors that is targeted at female shoppers.

Responding to long-time criticism that its warehouse environment was simply too rough for many women, the nation's largest do-it-yourself retailer is set to open the two test stores, called Home Depot Design Centers, later this month in Charlotte, N.C., and Concord, Calif.

They're fashioned as a hybrid of the typical Home Depot (HD) store and its Expo stores, the retailer's upscale design-studio concept.

Jason Feldman, the company's senior director of merchandising, described the stores as a test — "to romance and wow the customer."

"We've really made it an environment in which she is interested in shopping," he said, emphasizing the shopper as a "she." Big professional construction products like lumber and building materials will make way for bath and kitchen showrooms that are more extravagant and carry more products than those in the traditional Home Depot.

There's also a bigger section concentrating on home organization. The new products, for example, will give color to the home's interior design, as will other home-improvement items for products such as doors and windows.

"There is a showroom of doors and windows unlike any other we've ever tried," Feldman said.

"She can buy a light bulb as well as all of the lighting," he said. "Or a major appliance plus the laundry detergent to go with it."

Though there will be a garden center, the focus won't be on the act of gardening as much as the appreciation of outdoor living. No piles of dirt and grass-seed bags or rolling shelves full of begonias and impatiens will be found at the design centers. Instead there will be more stylish outdoor furniture and accessories, upscale pottery and other garden paraphernalia.

The store lighting will be softer, the stockroom ceilings and the pallet racking will be gone, sight lines will be lower, the layout will be more open and the merchandise will be displayed on what retailers call "gondola shelving," like that seen at grocery stores or mass merchants.

The stores will still be big, averaging about 90,000 square feet. The signage and color scheme will incorporate a deeper shade of the iconic orange Home Depot uses in its big-box stores with warm earth tones of brown, gray and other neutral shades. Even the industrial-style logo will be tempered with lighter and simpler lettering for "Design Center."

The retailer also plans to expand an upscale furniture showroom it tested as a store-within-a-store concept in Chicago. The results of the 3,800 square foot showroom of its Home Decorators Collection catalog business were so strong that Feldman said the concept will appropriate more than 11,000 square feet at the Charlotte store.

Feldman stressed, however, that the two stores were merely tests. "There are no grand plans at this point," he said.

Demand out there

Bernard Sands analyst Richard Hastings said it was "very important" for Home Depot to experiment with new formats.

"Despite concerns about the housing industry, remodeling and improving home aesthetics remains a very strong part of the economy," he said. "There's still a lot of demand for specialized retailers and for this type of store where the homeowner can see examples of what things really look like when they're done."

The decision to shift its attention women, Hastings surmised, came amid Home Depot's research findings that existing female shoppers and possibly other female shoppers at other stores want this type of experience with the Home Depot brand," he said.

"There is plenty of demand for this type of store," he added.

Copyright (c) 2007 MarketWatch, Inc.