I hopped in my car and drove down to take a look. They were nice looking, about 4-5 feet tall. Looked like they'd had at least one pruning and were sprouting new growth. I bought two and brought them home to plant. Dug the holes and went to remove them from their pots and backfill the hole with good dirt.
Yuck! A stench came from the pot. Moldy and foul. Most of the dirt fell away from the root leaving a tap root not quite a foot in length. Not many other roots to speak of. In the pot, it looked like the root ball had been wrapped in something similar to burlap (but it wasn't) but there wasn't a wrapped root system. I flashed back to a tree purchase from Lowes we'd made as a gift for my mother-in-law a few years back. Same experience with the root system. That tree didn't make it. We dug it up, returned it and tried again with another tree. Same anemic root system. Same results. Got our money back and didn't try again.
I guess I really need to look elsewhere in purchasing trees and large shrubs.
What's been the experience with others purchasing plants from the big chain stores: Lowes, Home Deport, etc.?