The bonding started over a double-bowled sink and plumbing supplies.

Buzz Hangge, of the Ernst Home Center at Brickyard Plaza, made the sale to the customer he knew as John. At 11 am. Saturday, Hangge received his first panicky call.Seventeen phone calls later, the sink was installed.

"I drew the hole like I'm supposed to," was how John kicked off the series. "I'm using the jigsaw and my countertop keeps chipping. What do I do now?"

Hangge supplied the answer, "use masking tape," and kept installation tips flowing all afternoon. "I'm drawing pictures while he's talking to me, trying to figure out what the devil he's doing. It actually got to be funny."

At one point, Hangge figured he'd have to make a house call, but the young-homeowner-cum-sink-installer was determined. "The gentleman had trouble understanding the principle behind a hammer. But he got his project done and he was thrilled.

"The last phone call was `Thanks, Buzz, it's done and it's not leaking.' "

Hangee's story about The Customer Who Kept Calling typifies the change in the home-repair industry.

Offering a complete inventory of nuts and bolts isn't enough anymore. Home improvement stores are bonding with their customers over caulk and electrical tape.

Local store managers at Ernst, Sutherlands, Pay 'n Pak and Economy Builders Supply all say they sell service. While price is still important in the Utah do-it-yourself market, today's customers want to buy knowledge along with insulation supplies.

"We know that the product mix that we sell requires a certain amount of guidance," said Scott Richards, marketing vice-president for HomeClub Inc.

"We pride ourselves at Pay 'n Pak that we don't hire clerks. We hire salespeople," said Rocky Edelman, manager at the chain's Murray store.

"With all the how-to books out there, you still have a lot of people that have little or no knowledge who say `Hey, I'll attempt that fan if you give me some confidence.' "

"There are all kinds of questions," said Ken Long, manager of Sutherlands at 440 S. Redwood Road. "Lots of questions are just reconfirming what they think."

Many of today's homeowners didn't grow up learning how to use tools in a home shop, industry officials say. But now that they've purchased their first house, they want to learn how to miter molding or remodel a bathroom, and they find they don't have the budget to hire a carpenter.

It can be expensive to hire the work professionally done. And those costs mount when a homeowner has to take time off work to wait for the cabinetmaker or bricklayer to arrive. So, many homeowners apply the concept of sweat equity to home repairs.

Neighborhood hardware stores used to have brand- and location-loyal customers. But that's changing in today's mobile, suburban-sprawled society. "It used to be you put it on the shelf," Hangge said. "You advertised it. And it sold. But it's a much, much more competitive industry then it used to be.

"We're becoming much, much more project oriented," he said. "We've always sold toilets. But now we are getting more and more into bathrooms as a unit, as opposed to parts and pieces."Taking cues from other progressive segments of the retailing industry, updated home improvement centers are accommodating that new breed of customer. Most stores offer liberal return policies. And manufacturers are taking a cue by packaging instructions along with materials.

- HomeClub Inc., a giant West Coast retailer with 66 stores in 10 states including Utah, announced a $20 million investment in computer systems to improve its inventory tracking system. The system is all designed to reduce labor costs and get clerks onto the floor.

- Pay 'n Pak and Ernst specialize, carving niches out of a booming market. Pay 'n Pak wants to be known as the plumbing and lighting store; Ernst wants to be known as the kitchen place, offering expertise and a computer-design system. Ernst also maintains a pool of local contractors who can finish a project when do-it-yourselfers' ideas outstrip their expertise.

- HomeClub offers a project center, a booth in the middle of the store where customers can ask questions, and a library of 90 different how-to pamphlets. Other chains supply project videotapes.

The Pay 'n Pak chain has stores in 11 states, Edelman said, but Utah's retail market poses particular challenges. "The Utah market is by far the toughest market out there because it changes so drastically. You really don't know what the Utah mind wants. It could be service today and price tomorrow."

HomeClub's experience seems to underline that. Although all shoppers are welcome, the company's stores offer a fee-based membership, and its members receive merchandise discounts. But the company dropped its membership plan in November, after local store officials suggested the change in order to increase customer traffic. "We're happy with the results so far," Richards said.

Hangge said Utah customers bring more home-repair expertise with them into the store. "The skill level is better here than it is in our Seattle-Bellevue market." He said customers are also willing to offer advice to other customers.

Officials agree on two industry trends. In hardware, like bikes and ski clothing, utilitarian is being replaced by fashion-conscious. A good example can be found in the bathroom section, where customers are buying toilets in designer colors and seashell-shaped sinks. Another burgeoning section in the home center aisles are those selling storage. "Storage has turned into a major category," said Richards, of HomeClub. "I guess everyone had too much clutter in their houses."

Both trends might be because women are making more home center purchases. Hangge said he likes the female students who attend his store's how-to classes. "The women learned better than the men, because the men were always trying to figure out why I was wrong."

Retailers at several local stores say the industry will continue to tinker with inventory in order to fit customer needs. Mike Nordhoff, manager of The Tool Shed on Sixth Avenue, said being located among some of the city's most historic homes makes a difference.

"We sell more weird plumbing parts than anybody."