Contractors flock to Home Depot in sign of recovery

In another sign of an economic rebound, Home Depot said that, for the first time in at least four years, sales to contractors are growing faster than sales to consumers.

One of the nation’s largest retailers, Home Depot in recent years has more heavily relied on do-it-yourself business because big construction projects – one of the nation’s biggest economic engines – was offline due to the recession.

That changed in the first quarter of this year, Home Depot said Tuesday in announcing its latest financial figures. The company said overall sales were up 7.4 percent even as prolonged cold weather in the south and northeast dragged down its garden business.

The robust numbers add on to other indicators from the housing industry that erosion in the sector has stopped. Nationally, home prices are rising — including in metro Atlanta — while the pace of foreclosures has slowed.

For Home Depot, the economic improvements have allowed the return of a key customer: contractors. Shoppers in construction and related industries visit Home Depot about 61 times a year and spend an average $100 per trip, said Carol Tome, the company’s chief financial officer. General consumers visit four times a year and spend about $70.

But Tome said high unemployment remains a concern and that the economic turnaround is far from complete.

“We would say we are in a moderate recovery,” she said.

Still, for Home Depot, the signs of stabilization abound. The west, particularly business in some California markets, saw double-digit growth, while hard hit Florida also improved.

The garden department, however, suffered as heavy rain and wintry weather continued into May and kept consumers from planting in the northeast and south. But the weather is expected to have a silver lining: Consumers will buy more lawnmowers.