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#ecosystems
#e-commerce
March 23, 2023
14 min

5 Home Improvement Retailers that Could Become Ecosystems and Win the Race Against Amazon

Showing how Home Depot, Lowe's, Menards, Ace Hardware, and Build.com are building their digital ecosystems

SEO copywriter

Competition between traditional home improvement retailers and marketplaces is becoming tougher. Between January 2020 and August 2022, Amazon has grown its market share from 20% to 25%. On top of that, the tech giant is winning the online home improvement market with over 60% share in online-only sales.

The reason why marketplaces are so successful is an ecosystem approach. Amazon and the like are delving deeper into distinct markets and expanding their portfolio, so that their customers would come back to them more often and with more complex needs. This is how a company transforms into an ecosystem—by reinforcing its core offering with additional services.

Traditional retailers can benefit from an ecosystem approach, too. The key is to understand the customer journey, which doesn’t start or end with shopping. Half of the consumers expect a home improvement retailer to help them with accompanying tasks, like creating a design project, estimating project costs, or getting rid of old appliances.

To understand customers’ needs better, best practice is to think through a customer journey. Here is what a simplified customer journey map would look like when we talk about renovation:

In a perfect world, all these services are available in one place. In reality, they are scattered across several retailers. Customers waste their time and effort designing a project, finding a contractor and renting a tool from three different companies. That’s why encompassing all services is beneficial for both parties: customers have everything they need at hand, while retailers get additional revenue.

In this article, we analyze supplementary services of five American home remodeling retailers. During our research, we’ve tested five mobile apps and five websites, to see which one of these retailers has the biggest potential to become a digital ecosystem. As we show below, Home Depot and Lowe’s are leading the pack, while Menards, Ace Hardware, and Build.com are yet to catch up.

1. Home Depot unites consumers and pros

Home Depot is the largest home improvement retailer in the U.S. Apart from selling materials, tools, and home improvement products, the company has developed a B2B ecosystem for pros and additional services for customers. It includes several customer touchpoints—offline stores, a website, and a mobile app, in line with the One Home Depot omnichannel strategy.

To accompany the customer on their buying journey, Home Depot is offering additional services: a DIY hub, enhanced search, tool rental, a platform for hiring contractors, and help with moving.

Let’s break down some of them.

DIY hub. When customers get lost in ideas and materials, with no guidance on how to connect these two, they can use a DIY Projects and Ideas hub. This way Home Depot features educational content with links to its catalog, helping customers put their ideas into practice.

For example, a DIYer finds a guide on renovating a kitchen in a 1920s style, gets inspired, and follows the links to the catalog to see what’s needed to follow the guide.

The idea of this guide shows Home Depot’s intention to help its customers, and it is indeed a convenient way to shop for a renovation project. Something in the guide could be improved, though. For example, the links in the shopping list lead to entire product categories, not to products. Having to find the right products might disappoint users. A possible fix is adding direct links to the products, which will save users time.

Search options. Although product searching on the website takes some customer time, the Home Depot mobile app works faster. Searching is achieved through three options: by voice, by barcode, and by image. In addition to that, the app has an in-store mode, for finding products in a particular store.

Perhaps we were unlucky, but the visual search option didn’t work well for us. We found the Makita drill we needed by barcode and voice, but not by the photo that we uploaded.

Tool rental. For beginner DIYers, buying an expensive tool makes no sense—after the project is finished, it might never be used again. To avoid that, Home Depot customers can rent tools via a tool rental service. The service is available on the website, hence the customers can reserve what they need, as well as check prices, availability, and rental terms.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to pay and order delivery online. This means that customers can’t avoid going to the store, which might be annoying for those who were looking to do everything online. Hence, online payment and delivery options would be handy.

Pro Referral. Some customers are not ready to do the whole renovation project themselves. For these cases, Home Depot has built Pro Referral”, a platform for homeowners and home improvement professionals. The pros registered on the platform are independent contractors, much like Uber drivers are independent from Uber.

Pro Referral brings benefits to all. For customers, the platform means more contractors to choose from, an easier search, and lower prices. For Home Depot, it’s a way to attract a new audience and get additional revenue.

Services for moving. Moving into a remodeled house is one of the possible final steps in the remodeling project. Having that in mind, Home Depot compiled resources for those who are moving in a Moving hub on their website. The hub features a moving calculator, a truck rental service, a moving checklist, move-in and move-out cleaning, and tips for a painless move from Home Depot experts.

Here is what a moving calculator does: it helps figure out how many boxes one needs to move their belongings to a new house. Even if it’s not the plan to buy those boxes from Home Depot, the tool is still helpful.

The calculator adds value to Home Depot’s moving hub. Customers who are moving will need to pack their belongings anyway, so Home Depot helps them plan it for free. Once customers use the tool, they are more likely to look at other moving services, like move-out cleaning or renting a truck.

All in all, Home Depot’s already laid a foundation for a home improvement ecosystem. Services before and after renovation help customers start and complete the project, while Pro Referral engages third-party contractors who also become a part of an ecosystem. If the company builds on this in the future and integrates all the services into one app, it will be the first digital ecosystem for DIY enthusiasts in the U.S.

2. Lowe’s “democratizes” expertise using technology

Lowe’s, the largest competitor to Home Depot, is also finding ways to create value for customers. Now, the traditional Lowe’s business of selling remodeling goods is joined by innovations for the post-pandemic world. Some of them come from Innovation Labs, Lowe’s tech unit specializing in emerging technologies for home improvement.

Here we will look closer at the company’s cutting-edge as well as more traditional services—remote workshops, advanced in-store search, cost calculators, and a haul-away service.

Workshops. Although DIYers are keen on doing things on their own, they still seek advice from experts. Lowe’s is addressing this need with workshops, both in-store as well as via live streaming available on the website. Working with a professional designer might be expensive, hence a free workshop is a way to hear a pro’s opinion on kitchen remodeling or get an idea for an accent wall.

It’s possible to sign up for an event via the website, but not in the app, which might’ve been more convenient in this case. Hence, we would suggest adding a calendar or a newsfeed with upcoming webinars to the Lowe’s app.

Cost calculators. Figuring out the amount of raw material for a project is a tedious task. For customers who don’t want to do it themselves, Lowe’s has cost calculators. There are 20 of them available on the website, including those for siding, wallpaper, flooring, concrete, and paint.

It’s easy to find the calculators on the website, but to make them even more convenient, we’d recommend embedding them on product pages. Another option is to add a link to the relevant calculator like the one seen below.

This will save customers time and help them make an order quickly.

Item location. Home improvement stores are usually large and complex, which makes it hard to navigate them. One of Lowe’s innovations is showing aisle and shelf locations for select products in the app. Those products have a button with aisle and shelf numbers in the customer’s favorite store.

The feature is useful for shopping in-store, saving customers time and effort while trying to find the right aisle. Still, it could be further enhanced. While the app had shown the item’s location, we weren’t able to find it because it happened to be out of stock. To avoid customer disappointment, we’d suggest graying out the aisle location button and showing a different store in cases when the item is not available in the favorite Lowe’s.

Haul-away service. It’d be strange to call a haul-away service an innovation, yet for some reason home improvement retailers rarely offer it. Lowe’s is one of those retailers. Its haul-away offering does exactly what it says on the tin—after installing a new fridge or a dishwasher, the staff haul away the old one. Moreover, Lowe’s can recycle old devices, which is an advantage for customers who care about the environment.

The downside is that the haul-away service is free only for Pro customers. Apart from making it available to everyone, another possible enhancement would be to help customers dispose of leftover materials.

To sum up, Lowe’s strongest side is the innovative approach. The company is at the forefront of home improvement tech, although it’s not yet integrated into one digital ecosystem. Adding more existing services to the app would bring the company closer to that.

3. Menards helps DIYers with 3D modeling

Menards is a regional retailer considered the third largest in the country. Although it’s not known for its cutting-edge innovations, the Menards app includes some tools and services. For example, the company uses technology to help customers with their projects, namely by allowing them to build three-dimensional models.

Apart from that, Menards’ project gallery helps build a community of DIYers, while a small recycling service hints at an eco-conscious mindset.

Design and Buy. For customers who plan a DIY project and have some doubts about what it will look like, Menards has built the Design and Buy space on its website and in the app. Before starting to build an object at home, customers can go to the website and create it virtually. This could be a project of a house, a fence, a garden, or a deck. If it takes too long to design the object from scratch, there’s a project store with editable 3D models.

Being able to create a complex model in a mobile app is impressive. However, we experienced some hiccups during our tests, which made us conclude that there is certainly room for improvement. For example, at some point, the app crashed, and we needed to start all over again. Thus, it’d be great if the app saved the progress automatically.

Project gallery. Many home improvement services are aimed at helping customers get ideas. Menards has its own inspiration gallery—it’s called My Project Gallery. Here is the way it works: customers buy materials from the retailer, build something at home, write down the process, and share it in the Gallery, with photos and a shopping list.

The list of materials helps other DIYers replicate the project. While it’s not a service per se, the gallery is a good way to start a community of DIY lovers. This way Menards can analyze what kind of projects their customers create and what issues they face. With that info, it’s easier to get ideas for additional services.

Menards Recycles. As we mentioned, Menards has a recycling service, albeit small, and for only one kind of waste—unneeded pallets. That is probably why the company doesn’t draw much attention to the service, except for a mention on the returns and exchanges page.

This service could be the start of a larger and more comprehensive solution. Customers would also benefit from having this service embedded in the app, to order a haul-away of pallets and other unused materials in a couple of taps.

Menards has a limited set of services for DIYers, so it is far from building a home improvement ecosystem. In our view, expanding the recycling program could be a logical step in this direction, giving Menards a competitive advantage and a way to attract new eco-conscious consumers.

4. Ace Hardware focuses on offline offerings

​​Ace Hardware is another American home improvement retailer with 5,000 stores around the world. Building a single digital ecosystem at this scale is challenging, considering that the stores are mostly owned and operated by independent local businessmen. Although the company offers an app, its additional services are tied to Ace brick-and-mortar stores.

Below we’ll have a look at what Ace Hardware has to offer—offline Handyman and in-store services, as well as an online paint studio.

Handyman services. Like Home Depot, Ace Hardware is thinking about the consumers who need help with their projects. However, the retailer employs its own professionals instead of giving independent contractors a platform to find customers. Its Ace Handyman Services include carpentry work, painting, staining, furniture assembly, and door installations. All of these are done by the company’s staff.

It’s worth noting that the service is available online, but only partially. Customers can submit a request on the website, while booking is possible only via a call or in the store.

The next logical step to develop this service is to show customers available slots on the website or in the app and book an appointment straight away. It will save time, both for users and store representatives.

In-store services. Apart from complex tasks like door installations, Ace Hardware staff can also complete minor repairs and projects in-store. These include glass cutting, key cutting, screen repair, and knife sharpening. The availability of a particular service depends on the store, so customers need to check with their local Ace before making a trip.

The way it works certainly makes sense, as there’s no need to book an online appointment for something like cutting a key. Nevertheless, it’d be more convenient if there was an online map of services available in stores—a service locator, for example. This would help customers quickly find the nearest place where they can get the task done.

Paint hub and visualizer. Despite relying heavily on offline stores, Ace has invested in an online resource for customers who undertake a painting project—Paint Studio. The section features articles on current trends, guides from DIY influencers, and a paint visualizer. Thanks to this tool, it’s possible to try out colors in a room by uploading a photo.

With a visualizer, customers are able to make a decision on a paint color or a wallpaper faster. That’s what makes it a great tool, although it might need a couple of tweaks. In our experience, it’s best to make the visualizer available both on the website and in the app. This is what we learned when we worked on similar technology for a client project—below is the result of our work.

We designed the tool this way so that users wouldn’t have to highlight walls themselves—the app re-paints the room on the photo automatically.

Ace Hardware has built its brand thanks to its brick-and-mortar stores. Now, even with a strong offline presence, it would be beneficial to digitize the in-store services, as customers expect more convenience. This will be a prerequisite for a digital ecosystem.

5. Build.com helps find inspiration online

Build.com is the only retailer in our list that operates exclusively online. That is a possible reason why their set of services is limited in comparison with the competition. Without brick-and-mortar stores, building an ecosystem of home improvement services may be hard, so the company relies on its website and app.

Build.com offers only help with inspiration, but we think it’s still worth mentioning as it could be developed into a full-scale design service.

Curated interior looks. Helping customers with advice from a designer is the easiest thing to be done remotely. The company is looking in that direction with its gallery of “curated” interior designs, available both on the website and in the app.

Something that catches the eye is that each look has a list of featured products. It means that if users like a lamp or a rug in an interior, they can add it to the cart immediately.

The items from the gallery can also be added to a so-called project—a shopping list sorted by a category or a room. In our view, it’d be great if Build.com allowed users to build real 3D projects or assemble collages. Another possible service to be added is an online consultation with a designer, which could be the next step after customers look through the gallery.

Build.com tries to help customers rely on a professional designer view. Pictures are not enough for that, hence the company could develop in this direction further, perhaps with an ecosystem uniting designers and homeowners. At the moment, though, there is no sign that the retailer plans to grow as a home improvement ecosystem.

Key takeaways

These initiatives show that home improvement retailers think beyond selling their goods, which is the first step toward building an ecosystem.

Yet, not one of them has a comprehensive set of services needed during a home renovation. If you want to be the first home improvement retailer to launch a digital home improvement ecosystem, give us a shout.