I've heard for years that Lowe's is the home-improvement store for women. It's known for its more "female-friendly" atmosphere, compared with Home Depot's more contractor-oriented culture. Until recently, though, I'd never been in a Lowe's.

I've shopped at various Home Depot stores plenty of times, and while I've generally found whatever I've needed, and have been ably helped by the staff, I have thought the place a bit intimidating. Is it because I'm not Home Depot's target audience? Do men and women really want different shopping atmospheres? It wasn't until I walked around the new Lowe's in Dale City a couple of weeks ago that I finally understood what "female-friendly" really means.

I felt more comfortable at Lowe's than I had at the Home Depot across the street. The cleaner, brighter environment at Lowe's was noticeably more appealing. The store was also filled with women, many shopping with little kids. Across the street at Home Depot, scarcely a woman could be found shopping in the middle of a weekday.

Lowe's seems to have figured something out -- but it may not be what everyone thought. It isn't about what women want when they shop. It's about what we all want.

When Home Depot steamrolled across the country in the 1990s, many regional home-improvement chains went out of business, including our own Hechinger. Home Depot always moved in with a broader assortment, better service, deeper inventory and lots of public adulation.

Of all its rivals, Lowe's responded the best. In the early '90s, North Carolina-based Lowe's began closing its small, unappealing stores and replacing them with massive, well-stocked, well-serviced home centers. But what made the real difference in Lowe's makeover was the research it did about the home-improvement shopper. Lowe's discovered that most of the home-improvement decisions in a household are made by women, so the chain decided to turn itself into something that female shoppers would particularly like.

"Women tend to have different shopping habits. They are different in their information-gathering habits," said Melissa Birdsong, director of trend forecasting and design for Lowe's. Women, in particular, wanted wide aisles so they wouldn't be bumped into by other customers. They wanted neat displays and bright lighting. And they wanted clear signs that made it possible to find things on their own, she said. Lowe's gave them all those things.

More recently, Lowe's has been focusing even more on how women shop. Birdsong explained that before making a purchase, most women "like to peruse, they like to digest," so Lowe's has been adding more open areas where shoppers can step back and envision a project.

It has also added merchandise for organizing and tidying, topped by what Birdsong calls "inspirational" photographs -- pictures of what women wish their houses could look like if they only had more time. Lowe's has filled its stores with color, too, on shelves, signs and package groupings. And brochures are everywhere because "women particularly like to take information home and think about it a little more," Birdsong said.

If Lowe's is the manifestation of what women want in home-improvement stores, Home Depot is what men want. It's got a great, knowledgeable staff and well-stocked shelves, but the place is loud and messy, crowded by stacks of merchandise and bits of old packaging in the aisles. There are few signs telling shoppers where to find things, except for a some handwritten versions tacked here and there. And it can be hard to find a price.

No matter, though, because Home Depot is designed for contractors, who are overwhelmingly male and account for about a third of the chain's sales. That's the atmosphere Home Depot wants to create, along the way allowing homeowners to feel like they're entering the real deal of home-improvement stores when they walk in. Home Depot spokesman John Simley quickly pointed out the industry criticism that Lowe's is "too pretty for the pro."

Home Depot doesn't want the kind of "attractive and pretty store" that Lowe's has.

"Our target market is everybody, and as a result, if you make a store that is too soft in appearance, functions too much like a department store, you begin to drive away other important segments. For us that would include contractors," Simley said. "When you're in the store to buy a bunch of two-by-fours, you don't want to be bumping into pastel dishtowels and Tupperware and so forth."

But is that really true?

There is one confounding piece of data that flies in the face of the notion that men want dirty and dark and women want clean and bright: At both Home Depot and Lowe's, according to Boston-based Forrester Research, an equal percentage of purchases are made by women. Forrester pegs the number at 45 percent. The two chains both say around 50 percent.

Simley of Home Depot says that suggests the Lowe's approach to attracting women doesn't work any better. Lowe's says it does have more women shoppers driving purchases to the chain, but they may not "write the check or hand over the plastic," Birdsong said.

Forrester researcher Christopher Kelley thinks the data about female shoppers are skewed by two factors. First, Home Depot has almost twice as many stores as Lowe's -- 1,600 vs. 875 -- so in areas where it's the only choice, it gets plenty of female shoppers. Its also gets a larger share of "convenience trips" made by homeowners to buy a quick tool or replacement part, boosting its share of female shoppers.

But there's another factor: Men like the Lowe's format just as much as women. In Kelley's latest survey, men and women both rated Lowe's stores as superior to Home Depot in every category except convenience.

"It shows that even with the softer Lowe's stores, even men like those stores better," Kelley said. "Having good parking and wider aisles, is that soft? I don't think so, and I'm a guy."

Maybe there was a time when what men and women wanted was very different. But that seems to be changing.

"The older we get, the more shopping ambiance counts," said Kenneth M. Gassman, a retail consultant based in Richmond.

And for all its bravado about having a "serious" look, Home Depot is changing with the times, too. In the past year, the chain has started remodeling older stores, ditching the handwritten signs and replacing them with pre-printed versions. The aisles are being cleaned up and better labeled. The lights are brighter and the floors are polished. The orange steel racking is now . . . beige.

Only a handful of Home Depot's outlets have been remade in this new image, but it is the future for the chain. The Dale City store, now 10 years old, will be reworked later this year.

Simley said Home Depot is going for "consistency and sharpness" in its stores while being careful not to lose the "industrial" presentation. But he rejected the notion that Home Depot is following Lowe's. Home Depot is merely doing what shoppers want, Simley said, and following other industry trends. "Where Lowe's is going is fifth or sixth on the list," he said dismissively.

Call it soft, call it sharp -- it's the same thing. It's what all shoppers want: a store that's clean, neat, well-lighted and easy to navigate. Can't we all just get along?

If you have a question, comment or concern about what you see when you shop, send an e-mail to sellingus@washpost.com.