Lowe’s innovation exec on why it was built for the Covid-era consumer

Consumers are ready for new e-commerce experiences that, 'only earlier this year, would have felt ahead of their time.'

Home renovation is hot. Letting contractors into your house is not. Here's how Lowe's prepared for this unlikely scenario, the new tools it has rolled out to address it and what's next on the retailer's innovation 'roadmap.'

Lowe’s is in the process of filling nearly 2,000 technology roles and building a global technology center in Charlotte set to open next year. The new center will house one of three Innovation Labs. The others are in Bangalore, India and Kirkland, Wash. And, those centers, too, have expanded.

Think about it: Lowe’s isn’t Microsoft or Apple. The No. 2 US home improvement retailer sells hammers, 2x4s, washing machines and bags of mulch. While the consumer checking out with a box of nails is certainly a focus, the company is also hyper-focused on future realities—no matter how strange they may seem.

Its “narrative-driven innovation process” encourages its teams of creative technologists, engineers, researchers, product managers and others, to dream about how consumers will experience retail within hypothetical situations. “Stories” are crafted based on consumer pain points, human behaviors and external factors such as economics and culture, says Josh Shabtai, senior director, ecosystem, Lowe’s Innovation Labs. “We think: what could radically reshape things with those factors in mind? We then commit to a course and be very intentional about it.” The promising solutions are placed on a “roadmap” for development.

While the roadmap had been pretty straight and narrow, a funny thing happened—a terrible story came true. “Enter Covid,” says Shabtai. One new reality is the fact that “people don’t feel comfortable letting strangers into their homes for a service visit. We had created conditions for that story setting. Now we’re in exponential times. The work we’ve been doing for years, the demand to bring it to scale is here.”

In-home solutions for a socially distant moment

Shabtai, who has designed video games, toured with the alt-band Controller and led interactive strategy at ad and PR agencies, is now creating retail experiences for a moment few historians saw coming. “People are more comfortable doing things remotely. There are lots of opportunities for brands to provide actual utilities that, only earlier this year, would have felt too ahead of their time. Consumers are more ready to accept them.”

One such innovation is Lowe's for Pros JobSIGHT powered by Streem, an augmented video chat service that allows contractors to conduct virtual home visits. The service combines video, computer vision and augmented reality to help its pro contractors evaluate repair and maintenance projects. During virtual consultations, pros video chat with customers, detect serial numbers and product details and make suggestions. They can also use the on-screen laser pointer and AR quick-draw tools to guide customers through a virtual consultation. Sometimes, they offer a tip for a simple repair. After the consultation, they send a one-page summary to address follow-up needs. The service is free through Oct. 31.

At the core of what he, and the teams across the globe, are trying to achieve is a “democratization of expertise,” he says. “It’s about how can we create new bridges between the person at home and the experts on the other end to actually see what’s happening in the home.”

A forthcoming tool, for example, will allow for conducting complex measurements for complex designs. “The customer is ready for some deeper augmented e-commerce experiences with their phones,” says Shabtai. In the meantime, they’ve built augmented reality functionalities where you can preview what a new grill might look like on your patio or how a refrigerator might fit in your kitchen.

After all, the citizens of the world have been stuck at home, staring at the same walls and yards, with increased scrutiny. This has led to a significant spike in sales: Lowe’s saw an 80% increase in online sales and 11.2% same-store sales boost in the first quarter.Shabtai

Battling cover band syndrome

Moving forward, how will Shabtai and team decide what to create or not? He likens being in the innovation lab to being in a rock cover band: “we get a lot of requests.”

The aforementioned “roadmap” works like a setlist. It provides agreed upon checks and balances instituted across all three labs. This is essential for harmony, says Shabtai. “As a game designer or with my previous innovation groups, there were never checks and balances. Now there is a healthy creative tension between the labs that insures we are addressing consumers needs of today. It’s a huge part of why we are now scaling work. We’ve got a great pipeline to come.”

So, what’s in the pipeline? Shabtai says, new in-store innovations that take greater advantage of physical real estate are on the horizon. “You need to rethink the fundamental assumptions of brick and mortar.”

It’s worth noting that like any great band, collaboration is encouraged. Lowe’s Innovation Labs partner with big tech companies, academics, local and state governments and, of course, startups. That’s why it recently launched CONSTRUCT, a startup accelerator program, in Bangalore. It helps fund these vital creators who help create solutions for the stories to come.

Let’s hope the next chapter and verse does not need to include a worldwide pandemic.

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