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Amazon isn't the biggest threat for this retailer

A Lowe's store in Wake Forest , North Carolina.
Jim R. Bounds | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Lowe's store in Wake Forest , North Carolina.

Lowe's fiercest target is Home Depot, not Jeff Bezos. The $60 billion do-it-yourself retailer clipped its operating margin growth for 2017 to ramp up marketing. That sliced $4 billion from its value. Attracting more shoppers to visit outlets in search of home-improvement stuff underscores an increasingly bitter rivalry with its $180 billion peer, not the seemingly unstoppable Amazon.

By all accounts, the Mooresville, North Carolina-based chain benefited from the upswing in more people looking to polish up their houses with new appliances and such. Sales were up nearly 7 percent to $19.5 billion for the quarter ending Aug. 4. At stores open for more than year, the cash registers tallied a 4.5 percent increase. The average ticket rose almost 4 percent to $71.40.

"The rising tide also highlights that Home Depot and Lowe's are almost indistinguishable given their wide aisles of lumber, paint, sinks and tile."

As Home Depot noted last week, a tight housing supply is boosting the overall category. That constrains people's ability to move easily, so instead remodeling is in vogue. Additionally, first-time buyers wading into the market appear to be finding that the older stock now available is in need of an overhaul.

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The rising tide also highlights that Home Depot and Lowe's are almost indistinguishable given their wide aisles of lumber, paint, sinks and tile. Both have a similar footprint with Lowe's totaling 2,141 stores to Home Depot's count of 2,282. It follows that marketing and customer service become important points of differentiation.

Lowe's Chief Executive Robert Niblock said the company will invest more in advertising as well adding more salespeople to the floors, putting pressure on operating margins. Its stock fell about 6 percent in response. Home Depot got dinged last week on concerns that Bezos' Amazon would impinge on its territory. For now, at least, the home-improvement business is more an old-fashioned duel of two similar competitors, rather than a tech upstart pulling out the rug.

Commentary by Jennifer Saba, a columnist at Breakingviews. Follow her on Twitter @jennifersaba.

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