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An e-retailer’s quest to take the frustration out of DIY

September 19, 2016 04:38 PM
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This summer, Americans have been treated again to a symphony of power saws, pounding hammers and whizzing drills. Home improvements are back in style. After a post-recession lull, we’ve finally resumed spending on renovations, with record growth in sales of building supplies and furnishings.

But just like a decade ago when this sector last boomed, fixer-uppers are hitting a wall of frustration. Always a challenge, home renovations are increasingly proving a logistical nightmare. Nearly half of renovators complain about waiting too long for out-of-stock supplies,    according to a newly commissioned survey. Horror stories of projects delayed months—or even years—are commonplace.   

All of which begs the question: Why? In an age when we can order almost anything under the sun and have it shipped overnight, delays like this are, well, a little baffling. Disruptors like Uber, Airbnb and Amazon have given their consumers the powers of knowledge and choice, so why hasn’t home improvement improved?

Why the home improvement landscape needs uprooting

Well, there are actually a few good reasons why the industry has fallen so far behind. Imagine, for a moment, that you need a new TV. There are only a handful of reputable electronics brands and plenty of good sources for reviews. It shouldn’t take more than a few mouse clicks to find that top-rated 4K beauty you’ve been dreaming about and have it shipped to your door.

But imagine, instead, that you want a new hardwood floor to put under that TV. There are literally thousands of manufacturers out there, scattered all over the world. Few have websites and there’s no Yelp for engineered hardwood out there yet. How do you know whom you can trust to make sense of it all? Your local stores have picked out a selection for their shelves. But are they offering you the best options or just the ones that are most readily available, sell the fastest or give them the biggest margins? And why can’t you seem to find that gorgeous oak laminate you saw on Pinterest anywhere?

Starting in the ‘80s, retailers like Home Depot and Lowe's made a big dent in these challenges, radically improving selection and price for millions of consumers. But even with all that real estate, their buyers can only round up and present a fraction of what’s available: the difference between the selection you’d find at your local Walmart, for instance, and the universe of choice expected online today. Plus, big-box stores have a hard time keeping up with new products since they order based on past sales, a lagging indicator. And, as anyone who’s shopped for patio furniture at the end of the season can attest, they have trouble predicting demand, meaning the hottest items often go out of stock quickly.

It’s not hard to imagine a fix for all of this, of course. Why not just cut out the middleman and order directly from suppliers, like when shopping on Amazon. Trouble is, you can’t just bubble-wrap and mail a new bathtub. FedEx, UPS and other services have a sophisticated logistics network in place for small goods, meaning you can get that new TV overnight to your door. But heavyweight construction goods aren’t so easy. Traditionally, there’s been no way to get a new kitchen counter or flooring or decking from the manufacturer to your home.

Instead, retailers have to buy containers of supplies in bulk, have them shipped to warehouses, then to stores. Then you come in, find the floor you’re looking for (if you’re lucky), then figure out how in the world you’re going to fit it into the back of the family SUV to get it home.

Paving a new path forward

This is a problem I’ve wrestled with for almost two decades. It’s a tricky one, for sure. The good news, is that there’s finally hope on the horizon. The key lies in serving as a portal for consumers, rather than a retail pinch point. This is something that technology companies have gotten very good at, but home improvement is just catching on to.

Airbnb, for instance, doesn’t own any properties. Instead, it provides a platform that connects travelers to people supplying properties for rent. It gives both consumers and suppliers the tools they need to make informed decisions about what to buy or supply. Unlike a hotel chain’s limited pool of rooms, the number, style and locations of Airbnb properties is as limitless as the imagination of its hosts.

This same platform model has changed everything from ride-hailing (Uber), to buying music (iTunes) and even fundraising (Kickstarter). It flips the idea of retailer as gatekeeper on its head. Instead, the role of the “store” is to open the gates: providing a transparent portal where sellers can showcase their products and buyers can browse, buy and rate.

For renovators, this same kind of marketplace promises to make a fragmented industry a little more manageable (and this is exactly the goal that inspired my company, BuildDirect). On a website, after all, you can show thousands of different hardwood floors, without ever needing a physical store. You can allow users to rate and review the products they buy, quickly crowdsourcing feedback on must-haves and on duds. And by collecting information on what people are searching for, you can predict what’s hot and what’s not—helping manufacturers ramp up or reduce production to satisfy demand … before product runs out.

There remains one sticking point, however: shipping. UPS and FedEx are optimized to ship under 150 pounds, meaning—even if you found that dream floor online—getting it home would be very difficult. Solving this dilemma actually requires building a new delivery network from the ground up, which, in fact, is what we did. It’s now possible, for instance, to get a shipment of flooring, siding, a set of French doors or a pallet of decking from the manufacturing location direct to your home, without a big box store in between.

Admittedly, there’s no real Amazon of the home improvement game ... just yet. No single platform has emerged to offer that kind of limitless array of supplies. But, for frustrated DIYers, home improvement hope is on the horizon. In our case, we’ve added thousands of suppliers in just the last year and are on our way to showcasing tens of millions of products. It’s not hard to imagine a future where out-of-stock supplies, long delays and spotty product info seems like a relic of a pre-Internet era. If the industry can take some inspiration from its virtual peers, the symphony of renovators hard at work on new decks, bathrooms and floors may sound just a little sweeter in years ahead. 

BuildDirect.com, an online retailer of home improvement products is No. 182 in the 2016 Internet Retailer Top 500.

 

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