Many Americans are reluctant to allow visitors inside their homes during the coronavirus pandemic. So Lowe's is offering plumbers, electricians and other contractors a new way make visits virtually.
Starting Monday, professionals can use a video chat service from the home improvement retailer. By providing the service, called Lowe's for Pros JobSight, the company is trying to encourage more pros to join its loyalty program — and inspire them to buy more tools and products at its stores.
Fred Stokes, Lowe's senior vice president of pro sales and services, said professionals have had jobs canceled or postponed as clients put off services, such as measuring for new windows or flooring.
"Our goal with this customer is to keep them working," he said. "If you keep them working, then it keeps them in your stores. It keeps the trips up, the spend up."
Lowe's is trying to attract more business from contractors and homebuilders as part of an effort to turn around the company. It has historically relied more on do-it-yourself customers. About 20% to 25% of its sales come from pros — less than Home Depot's 45%. Lowe's is also trying to grow by overhauling its website and e-commerce business.
Before the pandemic, Lowe's tested its loyalty program, which launched nationwide in mid-March. Through the program, pros can log in to a website and access special features, such as tracking order history or getting personalized offers based on whether they're a painter or electrician.
Lowe's is trying to woo pros with other perks, too. It has a dedicated shopping hour for them at 6 a.m. and curbside loading and delivery at job sites. The video service is free through October for those who sign up. It's powered by Streem, a on-demand video company that specializes in high-tech features.
A Lowe's spokesperson declined to say how many pros have joined the program since it launched, saying it's confidential because it's competitive information.
The professional can send a customer a text message with a link to the video chat. The customer clicks the link, which opens in a mobile browser. He or she can show the problem by video, such as a leaky toilet or broken water heater. Through augmented reality and computer vision, the video tool can capture a serial number and identify the parts to order. The professional can use an on-screen laser pointer or a drawing tool to guide customers or help them make a repair.
After the session, the pro can share a summary of the visit, including photos and the video, and follow up with an in-person visit or appropriate parts as needed.
Lowe's CEO Marvin Ellison has said the retailer must step up its focus on pros to have a steadier and stronger business. He has said pros, who rely on home projects for their income, must push forward even during poor weather and other conditions that can hurt retail patterns for DIY customers.
During the pandemic, however, at least some of that has been flipped on its head. Lowe's had a strong first quarter, with 11.2% same-store sales growth that far exceeded analysts expectations. That was largely driven by people going through their checklist of home repair and maintenance projects while they're stuck at home. And on the other hand, some professionals' projects slowed or stopped.
In a recent interview, Ellison said its base of DIY customers gave the company an edge during the pandemic. And, he said, many of its pro customers are "pickup-truck pros" who haven't been as hit as hard as larger companies.
Stokes said pros have continued to shop at stores during the pandemic, though some of their work has shifted outdoors. He said demand seems to be picking up, as stay-at-home orders end. He also noted that some projects like bathroom repairs aren't simple DIY projects.