November 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Hardware/Home Improvement The hardware and home improvement info express

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"Our stores may sell 10 patio sets, but if you go to you`ll find a dramatically expanded selection," Foglesong says. "And if you need an extra chair for a set you bought in a store, you can buy that, or if you want a different cushion a selector offers expanded options."

With more than 40,000 SKUs on the site, navigation is important. And does a good job of helping customers narrow their search by product category, price and brand, says Scott Kincaid, vice president of usability practices at Usability Sciences. He also likes that the faceted search feature shows how many products are available in each sub-category, such as faucets under $50. But Kincaid found the price buckets were sliced too thin, so that a visitor might have to click several times to see all the products he`s interested in. Back to Top

Shopping and education
Shoppers at expect to find a wide variety of hardware and home improvement products and services. What they might not expect to find is inspiration. Lowes is changing that.

"Our primary goal is to be a source of information for customers when they`re researching and shopping," says Ames Flynn, vice president of e-commerce and special orders. "We want to be more inspirational, not just utilitarian."

Over the past year, Lowes has been adding richer content, such as videos and animated product demonstrations. It also provides product guides as well as How-To library projects and ideas for do-it-yourselfers. In early November, for example, the site presented information on buying a Christmas tree--the pros and cons of real versus artificial trees. It also offered a guide on holiday wreaths and other decorating tips.

"Lowes is an icon and I would expect them to have a really good site," says Kim Painley, president of Kinetic Marketing Consultants. "They do a great job of going beyond just selling things."

But while Lowes works to educate and inspire customers, the multi-channel retailer also has taken steps to make the actual shopping experience easier, Flynn says. It has improved site navigation and expanded product descriptions to include more detailed information about a product. Lowes also will be adding customer reviews to its consumer ratings section on each product page.

In addition, Lowes added a third party tool enabling shoppers to rotate and zoom in on product, giving them a better view. also reworked its shopping cart, reducing the steps to checkout by providing estimated tax and shipping information on the shopping cart page. And any promotions specific to a product, such as free shipping, appear on the page.

Lowes also promotes extended warranties for appliances and other products on the shopping cart page, a move that has resulted in a higher percentage of warranties being sold online than in stores, Flynn says.

"Considering the fact they`re covering a lot of territory, they do it very well," Painley says. Back to Top

Pay heed to this speed
Visiting is like going to an old-fashioned hardware store--nothing fancy, nothing flashy, just mountains of spare parts and a guy in a blue shirt who knows just which flange or valve you need. And he`ll even tell you how to install it. does this job so well that a newfangled hardware store--Home Depot--has inked a deal making its appliance parts arm. Go to and there`s a co-branded version of the site (the guy in the blue shirt, however, is instead wearing a Home Depot orange apron).

The appliance world includes about 1 million parts. Canton, Mich.-based stocks 30,000, which covers about 95% of its orders, and promises next-day delivery for most. The e-retailer can special order any of the other 970,000, adding only a few days to shipping.

The genius of is the PartsDetective, a tool that helps customers zero in on whatever obscure part they need. If shoppers know the model number of the appliance for which they`re seeking a part, great--the process is lightning fast. But it`s the system`s ability to help shoppers with little idea what they`re looking for that shines. Select from drill-down lists the brand, appliance type, approximate length and, if known, part type, and odds are within 10 seconds a shopper has their part.

The site also features RepairGuru, a storehouse of appliance information both general and specific. And customers can e-mail the RepairGuru any questions not already answered on the site.

"It`s almost a self-help site as much as an e-commerce site," says Sucharita Mulpuru, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "It really guides you through the repair process." president Chris Hall doesn`t know what effect the Home Depot pairing will have on his business. "I don`t know if it will mean 10% growth or 100%, or what," he says. But just to be safe, has streamlined and automated its entire fulfillment process so it can handle triple the volume without significantly expanding staff. Hall expects any extra manpower will go to enhance the RepairGuru service. Back to Top

Content beats pizzazz
Rockler Woodworking and Hardware last summer featured a picture of a $4,000 pallet load of aromatic cedar on the home page of its web site,

Customers showed little interest in buying the lumber, perhaps because of its price. Yet the visual caught their eye, and they remained on the site far longer than usual. So much so that Rockler kept running the cedar image for more than a month. Typically, the Medina, Minn.-based Rockler changes visuals on its home page every week.

The way Rockler switched tactics with the cedar promotion reflects the nimbleness of the company in adjusting its web site to appeal to customers, many of whom go to Rockler for help with woodworking projects.

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