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Hardware stores are enormously important to devoted DIYers, the spots to both stock up on tools, supplies, and—at the best ones—get better advice than you will find in any YouTube video.

While big chains (Fleet Farm, Home Depot, Lowe's, Menards) offer low prices, nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook's ratings of area retailers suggest they often offer subpar advice and customer service.

In Checkbook's latest surveys, Home Depot received "superior" ratings for quality of advice from only 33 percent of its surveyed customers, Fleet Farm from only 36 percent, Lowe's from only 39 percent, and Menards from 43 percent. In contrast, several independent stores throughout the Twin Cities area received "superior" ratings for advice from at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers.

Among the area's many Ace and True Value stores, Checkbook found no consistent pattern in ratings for advice or other aspects of service.

Fortunately, many local stores hit the sweet spot, employing helpful staff and offering reasonable prices. To help you find your go-to shop, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area hardware stores to Star Tribune readers until March 5 via

To compare prices at area stores, our undercover shoppers checked prices for 20 items at the Twin Cities area stores for which we received at least 10 ratings on our surveys of consumers.

For prices, Home Depot, Lowe's, Menards, and Fleet Farm beat all the independents and other chains. Menards' prices averaged about 38 percent less than the all-store average, Home Depot's prices averaged 26 percent lower than average, Lowe's were 20 percent lower, and Fleet Farm's were 14 percent below average. But our price survey also found below-average prices at several area independent stores.

For large projects that require a lot of equipment and materials, you might get a five to 15 percent contractor's discount from an independent store—but not from the big chains—merely by requesting it. Some stores offer discounts to homeowners who plan to spend more than $1,000—and in some cases even less—over a couple of weeks. Our price comparison scores don't reflect such discounts.

For many customers, price is just part of the deal: They also want good advice, help finding what they need, and customer service. Running a top-notch hardware store starts with recruiting well-informed, helpful staff. Because the best hardware store salespeople must possess the knowledge of plumbers, painters, electricians, roofers, landscapers, carpenters, and a dozen other tradespeople, finding and retaining a cadre of these professional know-it-alls is not easy.

Whichever store you choose, seek out the specific clerks most capable of providing helpful advice. Over time, you'll learn who they are by trial and error, but you can expedite the process by asking questions—for example, "Who knows the most about plumbing?"

It's important to buy from hardware stores with liberal return policies. It's easy to miscalculate the volume of paint, number of nails, or type of hinges a job needs. And if you buy materials for a project ahead of time, it may be months before you realize that you have too much, the wrong thing, or a defective product. It helps to buy from a store that willingly accepts returns.

Fortunately, Checkbook found return practices at most hardware stores are remarkably liberal. Almost all retailers offer a full refund on returns for an indefinite period—as long as the customer presents a receipt and the item can be resold. And managers whose stores' stated policies impose time limits and proof of purchase requirements indicate that, in practice, they are often much more flexible. Even if a sign over the checkout counter says "No returns after 30 days," the store might offer regular customers a refund on merchandise purchased over a year before. Some stores even offer refunds to regular customers who have no receipts and even if the items have no price tags.

Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. See ratings of local hardware stores free of charge until March 5 at