Winning the fight against

BY Al Urbanski

Offer exclusive products, make the most of your retail brands online and accentuate the positives of your store touch points.

Those items are high on the project lists of home improvement retailers desperate to counter the threat of pure-play online competitors that price-cut them on their very selling floors via the magic of mobile communications. Leading the assault is Amazon, which in its 18-year history has left its tire tracks on retail segments, including books, electronics, music and office supply. The Seattle-based online retailer now has its sights set on home improvement, as evidenced by its debut at No. 10 on the HCN Top 300 in this issue.

Amazon sent holiday shivers down the spines of traditional retailers last year with the introduction of a Price Check app that allowed Christmas shoppers to scan a bar code — or merely take a picture of a product — and get a 5% lower price (up to $5) from the online player. “Showrooming,” or using Home Depot and Lowe’s as the place to examine a new drill before ordering it online for less, is one of a pair of bogeymen Amazon unleashed on the brick-and-mortar set. The other is its ability to sell products minus sales tax.

The latter monster appears ready to be vanquished. Retailers, including Walmart, Target and Home Depot, joined with the Alliance for Main Street Fairness to challenge the issue in several states, and Amazon has relented. The online retailer has signed sales tax pacts with seven states, including Texas and Nevada in May, and is in talks with five others. And while Amazon has long skirted the issue by supporting an unpassable federal online sales tax law, its aggressive expansion of fulfillment centers — 30 new facilities in 2011 and 2012 — should dull the controversy. A physical presence entails charging sales tax in most states.

It’s the monster No. 1 that home improvement retailers will be wrestling with for some time to come as they re-examine and reshape their business models to engage a digitally empowered consumer base. All those new DCs are evidence of Amazon’s success in conquering new categories. First-quarter sales reported by Amazon rose 35% to $17.4 billion, with sales of general merchandise — including home improvement — up 43% to nearly $8 billion. The company added 28,000 employees in the past year, a 75% increase in payroll, in large part to staff the DCs and gird for more orders.

“For any of the big companies, the challenge is to become better than the pure-play online retailers are,” said Lowe’s board member Leonard Berry, professor of marketing at Texas A&M University. “It’s not only a worthy venture, it’s an essential one.”

Former Home Depot chief marketing officer John Ross, who now studies the habits of mobile and online shoppers as CEO of Atlanta-based Shopper Sciences, said the battle is regular retail’s for the winning.

“It’s lame for retailers to be whining about showrooming,” Ross said. “Their charge is to offer best product at the best price. That’s what they are there for. In reality today, the trade radius of the store is global. If they are just looking at the local DMA for business, they’re not living in the 21st century.”

Juggernaut though it may be, Amazon is not likely to repeat in home improvement what it accomplished in books and music. Home improvement, especially when one considers the varied business mix of a Home Depot or Lowe’s, is a complex and segmented marketplace not completely penetrable by an online pure-play.

Whereas 6% to 7% of electronics and small appliance shoppers check out products in-store before purchasing online, only about 2% to 3% of home improvement shoppers currently partake in showrooming, according to a study by NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based consumer researcher. Some product categories, such as lumber, are exempt from the trend, while others rate moderately on NPD’s showrooming index. Power tools hit the high end at 9%.

“The impact is pretty low right now,” said Kevin Gilbert, director of home improvement at NPD.

While Amazon’s brief history illustrates it is willing to stretch to gobble up anything in its path, home improvement could prove too big a meal to swallow. “The question is, how does [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos think about the home improvement world?” said retail analyst Colin McGranahan of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York City. “It’s a $300 billion to $400 billion category. It dwarfs electronics. What is he after?”

McGranahan estimates that only 20% to 25% of what’s sold in a home improvement big box is currently vulnerable to Amazon’s online sales machine. “Power tools, lighting, ceiling fans — Amazon will play well there,” he observed. “But it’s hard to ship somebody a door. Quikrete would be a tough equation to make work.”

Jim Robisch, director of retail research at the Farnsworth Group, an industry consultant based in Indianapolis, believes that only about half of home improvement retail’s business will ever be within reach of Amazon‘s outpost off the information superhighway. “Contractors are not going to buy online, and even specialty contractors like to take their customers to a showroom to look at options,” he said.

Still, Robisch believes Amazon will become a significant player in the industry. “There are plenty of people who like to go to stores, but they’re dying away. It’s becoming second nature to buy everything online,” he said. “So for traditional retailers, this is a distribution issue. They’ve got to get the cost out of the distribution, not the product. Delivering to the end user is where they’re going to get beat.”

Texas A&M’s Berry said traditional retailers will work hard to improve efficiencies, cut waste, and demand exclusive products and low prices from suppliers in response to discount online competition. Ultimately, he sees them moving into digital commerce in a big way, while adhering to their core values of informed customer service.

“The physical retailer will become a multichannel retailer,” Berry said. “The Lowe’s, Home Depots and Menards can no longer afford to think of themselves exclusively as bricks retailers. They need to say to consumers, ‘We’ll do business with you any way you want to work with us.’ ”

Ross, who spent more than a decade at Home Depot, thinks traditional retailers will prevail because of the specialized knowledge they have of their businesses and customers.

“Home improvement stores are not item factories, but project factories. It‘s a unique draw,” Ross said. “The advantages brought to the party by online are limited.”

Amazon’s upselling proposition — the “You might also like” addendum to a sale — does not fully translate to the home improvement category. “If I buy a faucet, I won’t be needing another one for a while, so the Amazon model is laughably off in this case,” Ross pointed out. “The stronger Amazon gets in this category, the more the home improvement guys will invest in online. They will be the ones to figure out how to do it right.”

The MyLowe’s initiative knocks loudly on this door, forging ongoing home improvement relationships with customers by tracking their purchases and projects, as well as home details, such as floor plans, decorative styles and yard size. The value of such information can transcend a single customer. “If one homeowner moves out, another moves in,” Ross said. “The history of that dwelling remains with the retailer. It will know when the new owner needs a new roof.”

Amazon is on a mission to rule the retail world from its cyber-charged selling platform in Seattle. It helped cause the demise of such chains as Borders, Circuit City and Tower Records. Expensive retail real estate is unnecessary to its business, so its return on invested capital is more than double that of the average retail chain. According to a recent report in Harvard Business Review, Amazon’s market value is about $100 billion — or roughly that of Target, Sears, Best Buy, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Staples, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s combined.

Amazon is the 300-gazillion-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of your selling floor, and it isn’t going anywhere. But the behemoth may be denied run of the house in home improvement centers if penned in by a latticework of artful customer initiatives woven with the customer insights of experienced marketing associates.

Ross, for one, is betting on the Lowe’s, Home Depots and Menards. “As they learn to harness their customer base,” he mused, “we will enter a golden age of home improvement retailing where they will leave the Amazons in the dust.”


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A.Poulos says:
Feb-13-2014 08:30 pm

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How much credit should be given to the co-op business model for the success of the independent hardware and building supply dealer over the last half century?

Readers Respond


Facebook’s billions
An item that compared the market capitalization of Facebook and The Home Depot led to several letters:

“The value of Facebook is staggering, given they don’t produce a single product except to waste employees’ attention to what they are being paid to do.

“I for one am not of the opinion that the stock will ever turn a dividend to any stockholder unless you own millions of free shares.

“No value just to have a way to pour good money into a service that offers no real value to the members or to advertisers. GM spent $10 million and might as well have spent it on something to attract a real customer.

“How do you say stop the madness when crazy advertisers are not even worried about ROI with this type of customer and no real way to get a payback.”
— David Wood

“Home Depot provides needed services to the homeowner, contractor and to certain OEM’s that are dependent on this channel. Facebook is a luxury that is used primarily as a social networking tool for amusement, and secondarily as a business tool. GM recently came out and indicated that they were pulling their advertising from Facebook because it was ineffective. Further, Facebook indicated in the last few days before their IPO that many of their users are now using mobile devices rather than PCs, which further degrades their advertising effectiveness.

“I am confused about how Facebook was initially valued for this IPO. It just does not make sense to me.”
— George McCullough
Global director sales/marketing
Quaker Chemical Corp.

“It’s a shame that something like this is allowed to happen. It is basically a scam to raise money for a company that is basically a fad that will eventually wear off when something better comes along, leaving a lot of people broke for gambling on their current success and future success.”
 — Jeff Verboncouer

Competing with the big boxes

“There are a number of ways to compete with big-box stores, but I believe the most important elements are to know your customers and their needs, have the absolute best customer service with well-trained and knowledgeable people, always be in stock on key (never out) SKUs (especially those unique to your market area), and price the most visible and recognizable SKUs as competitively as possible.”
— Wayne Reimer

On the partial spinoff of  Sears Canada

“Sears needs cash. That is a nice spin on a desperate move. Of all of the mega retailers out there, Sears’ head seems to be first in line for the guillotine. Mega retail is in for a major upheaval as the forces of the Internet are forcing major adaptation or death. In my view, Sears will not be up to the challenge.”
— James B. LaMuraglia
Trend Routing Technology

Showrooms and their challenges: The digital battleground
An article about the trend toward showrooming — browsing in stores and buying elsewhere online — led to this response from a follower of traditional showrooms.

“The showrooms are letting this happen to them. They can easily determine which lines they promote are also openly selling on the Internet with no IMAPP and have zero margin opportunity for the showroom distributor. They continue to sell these same products with the mind-set that they need to sell items the customers are walking in the door asking for, when they should realize the consumer is finding this on the Internet at reduced prices, driving the interest in viewing the product in the showroom.

“Showroom managers talk a lot about providing service after the sale, expert advice, etc., which is all good, but to most customers, the price is the determining factor (especially in a weak economy). Home Depot and Lowe’s would not exist if customer service and expert advice were the only criteria for making a sale.

“Showrooms need to support manufacturers that sell responsibly on the Internet and have an established plan to protect all forms of distribution. Most manufacturers have no clue and do not hire an agency or individual who can assist them in the process. Having a valid and enforcing an IMAPP is the beginning, but they also cannot approach the Internet distributors the same way they do the other channels of distribution. They are different and have their own set of needs.

“Showrooms also need to understand they are no longer the driving factor in developing product and brand awareness as they once were. Consider that for every person who walks into your showroom, there are probably close to 100 people who have looked at products in this category via the Internet the same day in your zip code alone. It doesn’t mean that you are not a viable source of product distribution (and likely still the best when it comes to knowledge and service after the sale). It just means you need to understand what the resources you offer and how they are best suited for in the market dynamics, which now includes a customer who has already seen the product in their living room, the drive over or on their lunch break at work.

“Choosing your vendors selectively (and not just because they are a major player in the market) will allow you to maintain a level of respectable profitability while presenting a competitive price against any other distributor in the market, Internet, big box or mega-wholesaler.

“Point being, if a customer is going to continue to purchase products from their phone in your showroom, you are not receiving any profit from the floor space anyway. Put a product line on display and promote one they can find on the Internet with a solid IMAPP or one they cannot find on the Internet at all. The consumer may decide they do not wish to purchase this less recognizable brand, but at least you saved your dignity by not having to watch them buy from someone else while standing in your showroom.”
— Matthew Gardner
(The author is president of AMP Enterprises, which specializes in consulting manufacturers and distributors on Internet distribution programs where sensitivities in distribution channels and pricing are concerns.)


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How much credit should be given to the co-op business model for the success of the independent hardware and building supply dealer over the last half century?

Technology: BMC will take it to go


Boise, Idaho-based BMC is rolling out mobile apps designed to turbo-charge its sales with a salesforce and operations recently armed with iPads.

One of those apps has the catchy and straightforward title: “Dude, Where’s my truck?” The app fills the need for anyone who’s ever asked the same question while tracking deliveries to a job site.

The delivery truck locator is one of a full suite of enterprise mobile apps that BMC has rolled out through a project called “BMC 2 Go.” The idea is to make employees more mobile, more productive and more effective.

“BMC 2 Go will empower our people in the field,” said Malini Balakrishnan, BMC chief information officer and VP process optimization.  “As employees visit job sites, they will be able to access data and documents — on demand — that live behind our firewall.” For instance, rather than explain to the crew how a new product easily attaches to an exterior wall, a BMC rep can pull out his iPad and show the video. Or the picture.

Balakrishnan called the effort, a partnership with tech provider Apperian, an industry first.

“BMC 2 Go is easy-to-use and will provide builders and their buyers with access to content that will allow them to visualize the finished project even as it’s under construction,” Balakrishnan said.


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How much credit should be given to the co-op business model for the success of the independent hardware and building supply dealer over the last half century?