I build web systems for businesses. I’ve been working with and around the Internet since before most folks knew it existed, and I’ve been working with corporate web systems since 1997. Most of you know this.
In the pre-boom days, we frequently had to actually build the business case for putting corporate assets and information online. People didn’t quite understand how to get payoff out of this new thing, so lots of silly ideas got tried. Generally, though, some best practices surfaced, and they continue to be followed by companies who Get It.
One of these very important maxims is simple: don’t get in the way of a user making a purchase, or finding out if what you have is what your browser wants. This is particularly important and applicable to large retail companies like Home Depot. Tell people what you have, and how much it costs, and they’ll come see you. This is the “internet as ur-catalog” school of thought, and it’s pretty much the rule — even if you don’t do it, everyone else IS.
On first glance, it would look a lot like their site is on the right track, and in no small part it is. You can find information on the makes and models they carry, and even compare features and functions. However, a marketing decision somewhere in their adminisphere has robbed them of true high marks.
Home Depot is their mainline brand, but they also have the higher-end stores called Home Depot Expo Design Centers. Expo carries the fancy brands, and is much more of a service provider and design center, as opposed to the ur-hardware-vendor that the conventional Depot stores are. You can’t get lumber at an Expo, but you can’t get a $4,000 DCS range at Home Depot. There’s some overlap, I’m sure, but mostly they’re distinct (unlike, say, the bizarre brand strategy at General Motors). Perhaps to emphasize this distinction — and to avoid cannibalization — “nicer” appliances aren’t available at Depot, but can be easily had at Expo. There is, in effect, a “ceiling” at work — if it’s too nice, Depot doesn’t carry it.
Herein lies our tale: Last night, we discovered (while making our second-ever fruitcake — don’t laugh, it’s delicious) that our oven had gone on the fritz. The cooktop works fine, and the whole box is getting power, so some sort of ignitor or valve has gone the way of all flesh (and, apparently, oven parts). Rather than spend the couple-hundred this will doubtless cost (between parts and labor and service-calls), Erin and I are going to shift from “new couch” mode to “new oven” mode.
I’ve done some simple research in the past; I specified all sorts of fancy bits for the first house I tried to buy (longtime Heathen know this story), and ever since I moved into the Treehouse I’ve been meaning to replace the basic, no-frills range the place came with. We’ve got a list of features we want:
- Gas. ‘Lectricity is no good.
- It needs to be stainless steel.
- There’s no point in doing this without including a convection oven.
- We want a “super-burner” of > 12,000 BTUs.
- A simmer burner capable of < 1,000 BTU heat would be nice, too.
- Self-cleaning, natch.
I pointed my browser to Home Depot and started looking. As it happens, their selection isn’t terribly extensive. They have a festival of Maytags plus what looks like a single model of JennAirs in different colors (why the model numbers vary by color is sort of odd, but that’s another rant). I quickly found almost the right one: a JennAir JGR-8775-QDS. It met all the critieria above, but lacked a convection oven. There was no evidence that Home Depot even had a JennAir with a convection oven, in fact, which struck me as intensely odd.
Odder still was the fact that Erin, searching at the same time at the Lowe’s site, found precisely what we wanted: a JGR-8875-QDS, which is the same model with a convection oven. Of course, Lowe’s price for the non-convection model was more than $200 more than Home Depot’s on the same item, so we figured their price on our target model was similarly high.
Now, had I been actually IN the Home Depot, I expect this is where a salesman might have noticed my interest, asked me questions, and figured out that what I wanted they actually sold — but in their upmarket store, not in the “regular” Home Depot. On the web, however, there was no indication that Expo even existed at all, so it appears that Lowe’s is the only place to get the range we want. (This isn’t true, of course, but Home Depot does nothing to make sure we know that.)
Since I’m reasonably savvy about these things, and also since I knew Expo existed, I did a web search and found their site. Of course, this did me very little good: Expo’s site is a disaster. You can do some shopping, but only for small items like blenders. There is no provision at all — at least that I can find — for browsing their appliance lines, something I’d expect any such store to have. Fancy stoves are things people shop for kind of intensely; stepping in the way of that process is a bad idea.
The madness goes on, however. At Expo.com, I found one of the most misguided things I’ve seen in years: they’ve gone to the trouble of digitizing their catalogs so you can browse them by virtually turning pages. This absurd and useless feature isn’t even hosted at the main Expo.com site; it opens in a new window. It features essentially no search tools, and in any case does not even emulate a comprehensive catalog (which could be at least quasi-useful). It’s as if Best Buy digitized their Sunday insert on a grand scale. I do web development for a living; this kind of thing isn’t cheap. I’d love to have the salesman who closed this deal hawking MY services.
Finally, I located a phone number for a local Expo center — in the fifth distinct browser window their window-happy site opened for me (yet another rant; there’s very little reason to do this, in particular when the windows point to THE SAME SITE). When I got someone on the phone (a very helpful man named Ciro), he was able to tell me that yes, indeed, they do stock the model we want, and that it’s $200 cheaper than Lowe’s, and that we can have one at most two to three weeks after we ask for it, probably sooner.
Erin and I will almost certainly buy this stove from Expo. It’s what we want, and it’s cheaper than Lowe’s. However, Home Depot very nearly lost this business because they’ve imposed a ridiculous firewall of sorts between their two brands, and furthermore because the Expo site itself — for people lucky enough to find it — turns out to be worse than useless. What HD should do:
- First, include information about Expo brands and lines as part of the Home Depot site. Don’t make me guess that it might be possible to buy what I want from you, because most people won’t go to the trouble I did.
- Put Expo’s lines and brands on the Expo site, for the love of Mike, so people can see what you’re selling. Again, don’t put barriers in the way of sales. You don’t have to sell online; just show me what you have.
- Allow HD site searches to branch to the Expo site (going the other way doesn’t make as much sense, but how can preventing the upsell be a good thing?) as required; the perfect situation would involve the HD search returning links to Expo products as appropriate.
- Hire someone competant to manage the Internet strategy across all brands.
- Get rid of the ridiculous paged catalog minisite, and fire whoever bought it for you.
Of course, that’s free advice, and they’ll probably never see it. But that doesn’t make it any less true.