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Customer service boosts home improvement giants

Home Depot associate Vann James explains home appliance products to customer Rick Hollis in the Burbank, Calif., store on July 11.
Home Depot associate Vann James explains home appliance products to customer Rick Hollis in the Burbank, Calif., store on July 11.

LOS ANGELES – Flipping through door after door on display at her neighborhood Home Depot as if they were pages in a magazine, Debbie Megliorino envisioned her next home improvement project: a bedroom upgrade for her 1950s-era home in Burbank, Calif.

But for the 53-year-old postal clerk, the shopping excursion was a bit of a surprise. Instead of a frustrating amount of time finding “the guy in the orange vest” to help her, she said she got attention right away. “I’ve been asked three times if I needed anything,” Megliorino said. “One guy even walked me over to the screen corners.”

Her experience was no fluke. Home improvement giants such as Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos. are ramping up their customer service in a big way, and it’s paying off in sales, profits and shopper satisfaction. In the past year, the price of Home Depot shares has increased 75 percent and Lowe’s shares have gained 36 percent, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has climbed 17 percent.

On Tuesday, Home Depot’s shares gained 3.6 percent after reporting an increase in net income for its fiscal second quarter compared with the same quarter last year. The company, citing the uncharacteristically warm spring, said consumers spent more money fixing up their homes.

The big home improvement companies have been busy directing store clerks to spend more time with customers, improving the information and advice they offer in online catalogs, installing Wi-Fi computer service in stores and improving do-it-yourself instructions. They are coming up with ways to reach consumers with smaller budgets through multiple avenues, mostly online.

How-to workshops have largely moved to YouTube channels, and photos on Facebook and Pinterest, an online photo-sharing pin board, have replaced clippings from a magazine or catalog.

“Take a step back and see where the two major players were seven years ago when the housing market was booming,” said Peter Wahlstrom, a senior analyst at Morningstar Inc. “There was a lot of new construction, and the stores were so busy that they didn’t have to cater to the regular customer and bend over backward for them.”

“Then we get into the economic downturn and people stop spending. Construction goes from bigger projects to smaller renovations, and customers shift from contractors to those wanting to do it themselves,” he said.

In terms of customer service, the giant home improvement chains are catching up with smaller competitors such as Ace Hardware Corp., which has ranked highest in customer service for the last six years in an annual survey by J.D. Power & Associates.

In the most recent survey of home improvement retailers, Ace ranked first, followed respectively by Lowe’s, Midwest chain Menards, Home Depot, True Value Co. and Sears Holdings Corp. Home Depot moved up from No. 6 to No. 4 in the last year.

“While many retailers have struggled to right-size their staff with the down economy, Ace Hardware and Lowe’s clearly have kept the focus on their customers,” said Christina Cooley, senior manager at J.D. Power. “What’s been pretty clear with Home Depot is they’re trying to address their problems and making progress.”

Mooresville, N.C.-based Lowe’s Cos. said it has upgraded its stores with Wi-Fi and 25 iPhones each for associates to help customers with their shopping during its last holiday season.

Now, an idea sparked from a Pinterest board can be pulled up on the iPhone or a customer’s Wi-Fi-enabled device. “We know customers are going to spend a lot of time on social channels, sharing ideas and inspiration with each other,” said Brad Walters, Lowe’s social media director. “We want them to come into the stores with ideas and questions and talk with our store associates. They’re a wealth of inspiration.”

Lowe’s online effort has also led to cross-references on its Facebook and Pinterest posts to link back to the chain’s website, complete with cost estimates and product numbers.

In 2009, Home Depot introduced a plan aimed at devoting 60 percent of an associate’s time to helping customers rather than the previous focus on stocking the shelves and cleaning the store. This year, just before the busy spring season, every employee was retrained under the Customers First initiative.

Customers First includes store “power hours,” when orange-vest-clad associates will drop what they’re doing during high-traffic times and actively seek customers who aren’t already being helped. Employees are also trained to analyze the customer’s basket and cart to see what may be missing in order to complete a task, Wahlstrom said.