It's been a home improvement extravaganza this week in The Motley Fool Take, with both Home Depot and Lowe's reporting earnings. Lowe's has been gaining on the orange-aproned behemoth, but you can never count the Depot out. Read our Dueling Fools special for opposing viewpoints on the companies.

Or, if you're more interested in actually improving your home rather than investing in the companies that make money off you, check out our new real estate column and Home Center for tons of advice.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Home Depots Hangs Tough

Home Depot (NYSE: HD) reported fourth-quarter and year-end earnings this morning, closing off a year that saw the home-improvement giant struggle to grow overall and comp sales.

Sales for the quarter ended Feb. 2 slipped 2% to $13.2 billion, and comps dropped 6%. Using a 13-week basis for comparison (2001's Q4 had 14 weeks, while this year's only had 13), sales were actually up 5%. For the year, they improved 9% to $58.2 billion, with comps flat.

Home Depot's quarterly comps, while negative, ended stronger than the retailer -- and the market -- had expected. The company warned last month that comps could fall for the quarter by as much as 10%.

Earnings for the year reached $3.66 billion, 20% ahead of 2001's results. Quarterly earnings dropped, however, to $686 million from $710 million. Per share, Home Depot turned out $0.30 in Q4, three cents better than analysts anticipated.

The company opened 61 new stores in Q4 and 203 total during the year. It now peddles lumber, nails, and the like in 1,532 stores, and will expand its reach by opening 200 more in 2003. As announced last month, the retailer will shell out an additional 21% for capital expenditures in 2003 as it builds, remodels, and updates stores, both new and old.

Reports that Home Depot is being eaten alive by rival Lowe's(NYSE: LOW) are premature and greatly exaggerated. While Lowe's certainly deserves praise for a solid year, Home Depot hasn't just withered and died. It is cash rich with little debt, and is still the largest home-improvement retailer around. Circumstances don't warrant an obituary. To the contrary, with sentiment so against it right now, it may be a sweet time to browse the company's shares.

Quote of Note

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a Heaven for?" -- Robert Browning

Head Off Layoff Blues

When's the best time to negotiate a severance package? Actually, it's when you get hired.

Having provisions spelled out up front in case of a layoff is a negotiation tool often used by upper-level executives. But even if you're not a corner-office hire, there's no reason that you can't ask for a few assurances if worse comes to worst.

When you get a formal job offer, ask for an agreement to be included (e.g., three months' pay in severance, etc.). Should you lose your job, you'll have your contract or offer letter with specific guarantees and possibly legal rights in hand. (Just remember where you filed the sucker!)

If you're already working and have been taking advantage of the Employee of the Month parking spot, then there's usually not much wiggle room on negotiating a better deal -- especially in a mass layoff situation. Most companies consult with a pack of lawyers to make sure the fateful day goes smoothly. While they aren't too fearful of lawsuits, they are concerned about bad press -- both their outside reputation and internally with remaining employees.

Still, there are some measures you can take to soften the layoff blow. Here are a few tips we got from our resident Human Resources Fool:

Get everything you've been promised in writing. It probably will be, anyway. Remember, you cannot be forced to sign something on the spot. Take the paperwork with you and agree to drop it off after you've had time to review it with a cool head. Consult a lawyer if need be -- especially if a lot of money is on the line, or if you were axed before a bonus/commissions/vesting period or some other important deadline. (If you are dismissed "with cause," your former employer may not owe you one red cent.) Then schedule a time to come back with questions and to show off your new tan.

If you have some notice before the day the ax finally falls, do a little research. Call friends who have been through it -- in this economy, chances are a few of your pals can commiserate -- and compare severance package notes. If nothing else, misery loves company.

Volunteer to stay for another 30 or 60 days. If you can set your emotions aside, offer to help with the transition, shutting down your department or training your remaining coworkers. Leaving on good terms is worth it to your employer. And by prolonging full pay and benefits, you can push off your severance for a little while. Added bonus: a glowing reference and the satisfaction of being a bigger person than most.

Consult the employee manual. If you're determined to walk out the door with one of your employer's valuables, take the employee manual. You can glean some important info about policies, procedures, and how long you can hang on to that sweet dental coverage.

For more job-related tips, check the Ask the Headhunter discussion board, where folks chat about everything from negotiating a better salary in a weak economy to avoiding career suicide.

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Fleming Still Flailing

Shares of Fleming(NYSE: FLM) plunged 25% today, as it announced an SEC investigation has been upgraded to formal status and it will cut loose 15% of its workforce as part of an "operational realignment."

The investigation reportedly centers on the company's accounting and vendor trade practices, as well as some past earnings and same-store sales presentations.

Besides the layoffs, which will involve about 1,800 employees, the realignment announced today also includes some facility closures. Management estimates the program -- which will result in charges of some $290 million, with an actual cash cost of about $115 million -- will provide $60 million in annual savings.

Along with the SEC investigation, the other major issue for the nation's top wholesale food supplier has been the loss of its top customer, Kmart. After months of uncertainty, Kmart severed the relationship, and suddenly Fleming had lost about 20% of its revenue stream.

These issues -- combined with credit downgrades from Moody's, Fitch, and Standard & Poor's -- have sent the stock into a frightening nosedive. Since March of last year, the company has lost 90% of its value.

Chief Financial Officer Mark Shapiro scoffs at suggestions Fleming might fall into bankruptcy, telling Dow Jones Newswires earlier this month that cash flow remains positive and there is no material debt maturing until 2007.

Maybe so, but this is currently a very risky stock, and not one we're interested in at this time.

Discussion Board of the Day: Living Below Your Means

Are you pinching pennies? Would you like to learn how to spend less than you earn? All this and more -- in the Living Below Your Means discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Quick Takes

Wanna hear a corny joke? What did Baby Corn say to Mom Corn? Where's Pop Corn? Well, speaking of corny, Monsanto(NYSE: MON) has received regulatory approval to market its YieldGard biotech line of corn seeds, which will rid crops of pesky rootworms. The chemical products giant hopes the product helps its stock as much as it helps the stalks.

Remembering the Titan(NYSE: TTN), the military communications specialist posted fiscal fourth-quarter earnings that were in line with estimates and expressed its comfort with 2003 profit projections, which are calling for the company to earn $0.65 a share this year. Well done, Private Public. At ease, shareholders.

Calgon, take me away! Calgon Carbon(NYSE: CCC) CEO James Cederna has tendered his resignation from the environmental services company to pursue other new opportunities. You can either believe that or speculate that the company missing its quarterly earnings earlier this month and refusing to provide future quarterly updates may have created an uncomfortable workplace hungry for change.

Broadcaster Clear Channel(NYSE: CCU) had some good news to report as healthy gains in radio advertising produced earnings of $0.30 a share. That was three cents ahead of Wall Street's target. The showing also reversed last year's loss when the industry was really smarting for ad dollars.

Proving that AltaVista was simply an appetizer, Overture(Nasdaq: OVER) has no plans to leave the buyout buffet. The paid-search pioneer announced that it would be acquiring the Web search unit of Norway's Fast Search & Transfer. The $70 million cash deal is set to close in two months and may also involve another $30 million in performance incentives over the next three years. The market didn't like that AltaVista deal and it's not too happy this time, either. Once again the stock is shedding more in market cap than the amount it is paying for the purchase. Are these companies really worth less than zero? Probably not.

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com:

Contributors:
Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Mathew Emmert, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim