NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - I often visit the 7th Circle of Hell. It's called Home Depot.
My last visit was just hours before the Big Blizzard hit. I was looking for a No. 1 air eliminator valve.
"Home Depot should have it," said my buddy the plumber. I had called him up in a semi-panic. The intensely cold weather had put my steam heat into overdrive, but a strange hissing in the basement was draining the system before it could fully get into gear. I traced the hiss to a small contraption on the steam feed pipe. It was, my friend declared, a bad valve.
"You have to shut down your system, let the pipe cool, and pop the valve," my buddy explained from his home 40 miles away. "Then take the valve over to Home Depot, so you can match up the size and the threads. Home Depot should have it. It's a No. 1 air eliminator valve."
After explaining to my wife -- the mother with the toddler twin daughters -- the necessity of turning off the heat (only for an hour, honey), I proceeded with the operation.
"We don't have that," said the orange-apron man, before proceeding down the aisle on some urgent but unapparent task.
Sigh. Sunday. Plumbing stores catering to contractors, guys with serious No. 1 air eliminator valve needs, would be closed.
So I went to another Home Depot ... older, more well-established, and perhaps with a wider line of inventory gathered over the years. (Wife, with daughters, at home. No heat. Tick, tick, tick.)
Deja vu ... crowded parking lot, people wandering dreamlike through the aisles, dodging loaders .... and then ...
"We don't have that, unless maybe that thing there will work," said the orange-apron guy, motioning at a small bin, before hurrying off down the aisle, trailing a couple of guys waving around old parts and asking for directions.
The bin contained a straight radiator valve, not a No. 1 air eliminator valve, but with the right size and thread necessary to plug the hole in my steam feed pipe and get the heat back on. (Tick, tick, tick.)
$6.96 and an hour and twenty minutes later, the heat was back on. "It'll work OK," said my friend.
Another trip to hell closed.
Much like the one to get grillwork to build a new radiator box ... the very same grillwork I used on a similar project two years earlier, in a happier time.
"Ah, I guess it's not around anymore," said Orange Apron.
Or the trip to get window locks. Brass finish ones to go with the Victorian decor.
"We only got the aluminum ones."
More hell? Click me
Or crown moulding to repair some kitchen cabinets.
"You need three-quarter? Can't you use one-half?"
My disappointment in the aisles has been mirrored in the market.
Since the time I couldn't find small-socket frosted torpedo 40-watt light bulbs there anymore, about a year ago, Home Depot shares have been on a slide. The stock, in fact, has lost more than half its value, from a 52-week high of $52.25 to about $22 now. And Tuesday it reported earnings 3.3 percent lower than the previous quarter, along with a 2 percent drop in sales. The company also said it wouldn't provide any more quarterly earnings guidance (to go with their lack of guidance on air eliminator valves, I guess).
Are consumer disappointments and investor disappointments tied?
"My consumer experiences help me gauge the effectiveness of the company," says Michael Carty of New Millenium Advisors.
Jeff Matthews, president of hedge fund Ram Partners, tracks how quickly he can find certain items. "I just pretend I'm a consumer instead of looking at things as an analyst. ... it lets you see the little things that help you get a sense of the organization."
Neither man is a big fan of Home Depot (HD: Research, Estimates). Matthews, in fact, was shorting it until recently. And Carty is slowly turning his Home Deport holdings into Lowe's (LOW: Research, Estimates) holdings.
But many others like it ... as a stock, at least. Dow component, low debt, pays steady dividends ... heck, one of the MONEY Magazine's leading columnists listed it as a rock solid stock. And crowded parking lots are a sign of good business. Long lines at the cash register can be taken as a good sign too.
But I don't take lines that way. A retailer should never delay taking someone's money.
Even in the 7th Circle of Hell.
Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNN/Money and a commentator on CNNfn. He can be e-mailed here.