November 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Hardware/Home Improvement The hardware and home improvement info express

Customers have made it clear that the Internet is their No. 1 source when conducting home improvement research.

Home Improvement

Once someone has the tools and the materials for a home improvement project, what more is needed? Advice.

Do-it-yourselfers, handymen and sometimes even seasoned contractors face all kinds of questions and challenges when working on projects of all shapes and sizes. And when questions arise, they need a reliable pro to provide guidance. This is the role many online hardware and home improvement retailers are trying to fill in a way that helps customers and sells more merchandise. customers have made it clear to the e-retailing giant that the Internet is their No. 1 source when conducting home improvement research. Home Depot wants to make sure its e-commerce site is the place they go for help, and it employs various ways of keeping customers happy. The site displays images of what rooms can look like, and then provides illustrated step-by-step instruction guides and videos. It also includes video product demonstrations. And if customers need a more hands-on approach, they can use a search by Zip code feature that shows them the nearest Home Depot store holding educational clinics.

Ace Hardware does much the same on its site. It offers interactive how-to and advice features, such as paint tips and lawn and garden advice, as well as product learning guides. Like Home Depot, Ace also has a way to get online shoppers into stores: It offers free shipping on all items--if a customer picks merchandise up at his local Ace Hardware store. The web site directs shoppers to their closest Ace via a Zip code tool.

On par with its competitors, wants to be the source for hardware and home improvement shoppers. Lowe`s says the biggest goal for its web site is to be a resource for customers who are researching and shopping. The company has added videos and animated product demonstrations, and warehouses a library of information on how-to projects.

Though a smaller player, is of the same mind. The site emphasizes content and information over zing and bling, offering, for example, a woodworking blog with articles, product reviews and how-to information.

From web to store
How many consumers know when to use a ball peen hammer? Or how to prepare a metal door for painting? What about safely spraying insecticides while gardening? would love to answer these and other questions for their customers and encourage them to use its web site in planning and buying for their home improvement projects. Most importantly, Ace wants them to visit their local Ace stores.

A recent overhaul of the Oak Brook, Ill., company`s web site was aimed at familiarizing consumers with the Ace name and giving them reason to frequent one of Ace`s almost 5,000 stores.

"Our goal was to represent our brand better and to really make the local stores come to life online," says Dana Kevish, e-commerce marketing manager.

The web site attempts to accomplish that goal by replicating the in-store experience and motivating customers to visit those stores.

"They have a more robust store locator," says Sucharita Mulpuru, principal retail analyst with Forrester Research, Inc. "And they`re really trying to bring the store experience to the web."

Besides offering a bevy of interactive how-to and advice features, like paint tips, lawn and garden advice, a feature called the "helpful hardware man" and product learning guides, the newly configured site offers free shipping--if customers are willing to pick up their purchases at a local Ace store.

And many are. Kevish says 74% of Ace`s online sales are shipped to stores for customer pick-up. "Our goal is to drive that traffic into stores," she says. An important reason: 35% of those store visits result in additional purchases.

Even as special promotions in rich color rotate on the home page, the push is to promote the local stores. Atop the page is an invitation to "Find your local Ace." On the right is a prominent message, "There`s an Ace store near you," along with the news of free shipping "to your local Ace."

To reinforce that connection, a visitor to the site who has previously entered a ZIP code is greeted with an image of the nearest Ace store each time he signs on. Back to Top

Selling know-how
What do-it-yourselfers need more than tools and materials is information. And addressing that need has become a big focus of Home Depot`s web site.

"Customers tell us their number one source for home improvement research is the Internet," says Greg Foglesong, general manager of Home Depot Direct, the online unit of Atlanta-based The Home Depot Inc. "We`ve looked very hard at how we can fill customers` needs in that area."

That starts with inspiration, using the site to show what`s possible, Foglesong says. "What could my bathroom look like? What are the latest styles, the most fashion-forward colors?"

Then the site shows how to get the job done, with illustrated step-by-step installation guides and videos on a variety of topics. Customers also can search by ZIP code to find clinics at Home Depot stores near their homes. increasingly uses video to demonstrate products. Its video grill selector was selected by consumers as the best of five rich media implementations from e-commerce sites in a test this spring by Usability Sciences Corp., a consulting firm focused on how consumers interact with web sites.

Besides providing information, Home Depot uses its web site to complement store product selection.

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