Home improvement stores are getting creative with tech

Home Improvement stores in Canada have used the pandemic to creatively integrate technology into their businesses and keep up with the demand for digital options.

Rajat Khanna, vice-president of IT at Lowe’s Canada, and his team implemented a plethora of advanced digital features over the past year, from online ordering to in-store tech features.

When the pandemic hit, only some provinces deemed hardware stores essential businesses.

In Ontario, stores were closed and those interested in maintaining their homes and taking on home projects flocked online to buy everything they needed.

In the first few months, Khanna noticed significant fluctuations in online traffic.

Website traffic spiked to 200 per cent and continued to increase with digital volume at 400 per cent.

Similar to Lowe’s Canada, Home Hardware had to make changes and enhance its online platforms as fast as possible.

The hardware store also saw an uptick in site traffic over the past year.

According to Chris Parsons, director of e-commerce, “Our website traffic has more than doubled over the past year.”

To accommodate the high demand, home improvement stores had to go beyond giving users the ability to add things to a virtual cart. Other features like pickup schedulers and curbside ordering features were implemented.

Khanna noticed that in the first few months there was a huge increase in the amount of paint being bought. As a result, the IT team decided to roll out a feature to help buyers.

“A lot of Canadians at home wanted to take on DIY projects, and painting is one of the easiest things you can do to truly address your needs. We rolled out a virtual online paint selector experience online on all of our three websites. Customers actually could go from paint selection to viewing how their room would look virtually,” Khanna said.

Setting an example

And it is not just large corporations like Lowe’s Canada that ventured into unique ways to implement tech into its home improvement stores.

The Digital Main Street program has been focused on helping businesses achieve similar capabilities online.

The program was able to help Liberty Home Design, a small home design firm with digitizing its business.

According to Digital Main Street’s case study, its program was able to help Liberty Interior enhance its website with updated booking and project management platforms. It also tweaked the store’s branding to Liberty Home, which was broken down into three sub-brands: Liberty Interior, Liberty Collection, and Liberty Marketplace.

Shopify’s recent partnership with Primer, an augmented reality app that allows users to test the effects of home improvement before they go through with the project, has unlocked new capabilities for both buyers and sellers.

Call centre activity explosion

At Home Hardware, an increase in online transactions did not lead to a decrease in call centre activity. In fact, it rose by 350 per cent.

For Lowe’s Canada, according to Khanna, call centre volumes went up eight times more than usual. Most of the call centre traffic was from customers asking simple questions about order progress and tracking.

That’s where the company’s new Interactive Voice Response comes into play. The capability directs customers to the information they need about the store to reduce the strain on the call centres.

Once call centre volumes were addressed, the focus shifted to their website’s front-end.

Parsons says that Home Hardware redesigned its website and enhanced search algorithms for customers to navigate the site more easily.

The store also rolled out a platform to make it simpler for dealers to track, process and fulfill e-commerce orders.

“This platform offers a responsive design that streamlines the fulfillment of orders and simplifies pickup. It also provides dealers with options to fulfill the order from the store or one of Home’s Distribution Centres. This platform allows users to access it on any device – mobile, desktop, or tablet,” Parsons said.

A focus on mobile

At Lowe’s Canada, one of the most useful and important tech advancements, according to Khanna, are handheld mobile devices.

The store partnered with a technology company called Zebra to help produce mobile phones similar to the common smartphone.

Handheld Zebra phones. Source: Lowe’s Canada

Through apps on the device, the phones help Lowe’s Canada employees check inventory, check a product’s stock in a different location, and allow workers to communicate with each other rather than through a PA system.

The devices also help with “line busting.”

“We have long lines at times, right? They (the employees) could use these devices for what we call line busting, they could actually go upfront to folks who are standing in the line and they could scan everything they have and get them ready for the checkout,” Khanna said.

Sustainability matters too

Another new feature at Lowe’s Canada stores is the Electronic shelf labels (ESL) for appliances.

Electronic shelf labels
Electronic shelf labels. Source: Lowe’s Canada

Due to fluctuating prices, paper labels are wasteful and hard to maintain

Lowe’s Canada installed ESL’s for a more sustainable and efficient way to mark the products and make any necessary name or price changes.

According to Khanna, the ESL’s also have long lasting batteries and consume less energy as they can last for nine to 10 years.

“The climate aspect of it is something to be proud of,” he said.

Khanna also believes this allows employees to focus more on customer service, especially during the pandemic rather than spending valuable time trying to print new labels.

Technology often can eliminate the human presence but it’s important to remember that implementing features like this is a result of influence from burgeoning tech talent.

Danny Valentino, director of IT e-commerce at Home Hardware said the store focused on hiring more digital talent and Khanna explained that they needed to add to their talent pool of IT experts to help fast track the store’s digitization.

As cases decline and life returns to some form of normalcy, digital transformation does not stop where it is.

Khanna sees a big future for technology at Lowe’s Canada and already has ideas to expand digitally. Due to unpredictable lumber prices, Lowe’s Canada will add ESL to its lumber department.

He also plans on adding apps to the mobile phones to expand its use as well as adding pickup lockers to more stores nationwide.

Pickup lockers and ESL's for lumber
Pickup lockers and ESL’s for lumber. Source: Lowe’s Canada

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Samira Balsara
Samira Balsara
Samira is a writer for IT World Canada. She is currently pursuing a journalism degree at Toronto Metropolitan University (formally known as Ryerson) and hopes to become a news anchor or write journalistic profiles. You can email her at [email protected]

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