This is Part IV of a multi-part series, to read Parts I, II and III, see below.
"Part II – Autonomous machines. The technological transformation of the construction and building industry"
Brick-and-mortar has gone online. In Part IV of our series on how technology has transformed the construction industry, we look at the way traditional building supply operations have morphed into online retailers
- Building supply stores were once exclusively places where contractors and do-it-yourselfers would visit and load up on materials
- Increasingly big box suppliers have turned to the web and third-party retailers to drive sales
- It’s a deliberate transformation that began nearly a decade ago, and accelerated during the pandemic
Big box building supply stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and even Canada’s Home Hardware, would appear at first glance to be the very antithesis of technology driven enterprises. The over-large size of each store’s footprint screams brick-and-mortar tradition. They’re places that a do-it-yourselfer or a contractor visits in their pickup, and then loads up with the building supplies required for a project using their very non-tech hands and muscles.
But the fact is, big-box supply stores like Lowe’s, Hope Depot and Home Hardware are increasingly reliant on online and web-enabled third-party sales to drive their businesses. The fact is, quietly and behind the scenes, big box has gone big tech.
Consider that online business at Lowe’s and Home Depot has risen by double-digit figures during the third quarter of 2022. In 2021, Home Depot reported that its digital sales grew by more than 80 per cent in each of the last three quarters of 2020. It's largely the same story at Lowe’s and Home Hardware.
“Over the past two years, sales from our digital platforms have grown over 100%,” said Home Depot Chief Operating Office Ted Decker in February of 2022. Decker is now the company CEO.
“Our focus on delivering a frictionless, interconnected shopping experience is resonating with our customers as approximately 50% of our online orders were fulfilled through our stores in fiscal 2021.”
Certainly it’s true that a not-insignificant reason for a shift from big-box retail to digitally enabled sales was pandemic related. Before the COVID-19 vaccines emerged, people hunkered down in their homes and largely avoided outside contact. As they did, many realized their homes needed upgrades to accommodate working from home and their children’s schooling from home. With automobiles parked in driveways and vacations cancelled, many found themselves with money to spend, money that was then redirected toward home improvement using online tools. In fact, in some jurisdictions, online offered the only portal available for purchases because physical stores were closed.
“Our website traffic has more than doubled over the past year,” Home Hardware’s director of e-commerce said in the summer of 2021.
The spike in online activity meant that websites and server capacity needed to be quickly retooled to meet demand and shifts in buying habits. New web features needed to be added, like pickup schedulers and curbside ordering features.
For instance, Rajit Khanna, vice-president of IT at Lowe’s Canada, noticed a pandemic-related spike in demand for paint. His IT team created a virtual online paint selector.
“A lot of Canadians at home wanted to take on DIY projects, and painting is one of the easiest things you do to truly address your needs,” he said. “[With our online tool] customers actually could go from paint selection to viewing how their room would look virtually.”
While it’s true that the pandemic amplified the need for digital sales assets, it’s also true that a transformational shift to digital and what they describe as “omnichannel” retail was well underway before then.
“Approximately 15 years ago, we pivoted from new stores as a driver of growth to growth driven by productivity,” Decker said at the beginning of 2022. “Years later, we began building capabilities to better enable a multi-channel shopping experience.”
Both Home Depot and Lowe’s have launched online marketplaces, allowing third parties to sell through their web portals. Home Depot additionally recently launched an initiative called its Path to Pro platform, a online job-seeker marketplace that “connects skilled tradespeople with those looking to hire in the construction and home improvement fields.”
Investments have had to be made in seamless delivery, logistics and fulfillment to serve the pace of online orders.
But the impact has been remarkable: In 2020, Home Depot ranked No. 5 in the U.S. among e-commerce retailers, trailing only Amazon, Walmart, eBay and Apple.
Unsurprisingly, big box firms are aggressively pursuing the development of other digital tools, including mobile apps, digital price labels, and, in Lowe’s case, a handheld device called “Zebra” that helps store employees track inventory, locate products, communicate with colleagues, and assist in checkout.
It's a logical trend that leverages advancements in technology and caters to the emergence of a younger generation of digitally native customers, people who expect to shop from their laptop or phone with the same ease that their parents did at a store.
The era of big box has shifted. Big tech is taking over.