TECHNOLOGY

America’s favorite home improvement retailer is…

BY Marianne Wilson

A smaller-format, neighborhood-oriented retailer beat out big-box competitors to rank as the nation's favorite home improvement retailer in a just-released study.

Ace Hardware, known for its neighborly service and an intense focus on the customer experience, earned the top spot, with a composite loyalty score of 63%, in a study by Market Force Information.

Menards ranked second, with a 60% score, followed by Lowe’s, with 55%, and Home Depot, with 51%. (In order to be included in the category, a traditional home improvement brand must have been selected by 100 or more respondents representing 2% or more of total. Only Ace, Menards, Lowe's and Home Depot qualified).

Market Force also looked at how the top brands fare in operational and product attributes that matter most to consumers. Ace Hardware ranked first in most categories, with particularly strong marks for ease of finding merchandise, staff service and knowledge, and speedy checkouts.

Menards scored highest for merchandise variety and value, while Lowe’s earned the top spot for parking availability. Home Depot ranked last of the brands in all service categories, as well as cleanliness and value.

Market Force’s research revealed that 60% of consumers consider themselves “DIY enthusiasts,” who not only purchase the materials and products themselves, but also complete their own home improvement projects. Another 22% fall in the “do-it-for-me” group that purchases the materials and products, but outsources the labor.

"Home improvement could be a bright light in the retail sector with remodeling projects on the rise and consumers more confident about investing in their homes,” said Ray Walsh, CEO of Market Force Information. “Our research shows that retailers must continue to focus on the customer experience to differentiate their offer and capture a greater share of this growing market, excelling in areas such as value, store cleanliness, and merchandise variety and availability.”

In other findings:

• Home Depot’s app is most popular, with 45% using it, followed by Lowe’s, Walmart, Ikea and Menards. Of the 18% of consumers who indicated they have used an app, 93% of them said the app was helpful.

• One-fifth reported that they participate in the loyalty program offered by the retailer they most recently visited. Ace Hardware’s program is overwhelmingly the most popular with 67% participation, Lowe’s ranked a distant second with 21%, Menards was third with 11% and Home Depot trailed with 8%.

• Nineteen percent indicated they have a home improvement store-branded credit card, with most choosing Lowe’s (25%) and Home Depot (21%). Just 7% have a Menards card and 3% have an Ace card.

For the home improvement rankings, Market Force Information (Market Force) polled more than 7,800 consumers. The participants were asked to rate their satisfaction with their last experience at a home improvement or furnishings store and their likelihood to recommend it to others. That data was averaged to rate each brand on an aggregation of the two measures – a composite loyalty Index.

Market Force also looked at the attributes that drive these preferences, analyzing factors such as merchandise and brand selection, cleanliness and value.

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TECHNOLOGY

Beauty retailer delivers AI-based ‘lip service’

BY Deena M. Amato-McCoy

Estée Lauder is making it even easier for online customers to choose — and purchase — their next tube of lipstick.

Through its partnership with ModiFace, the beauty retailer launched a chatbot that helps customers find their ideal lipstick color. The conversational lipstick "advisor," which is accessible on Facebook Messenger, enables online and mobile users to interact with two of Estée Lauder’s lipstick lines.

Using patented facial recognition and augmented reality (AR) product simulation technology, the tool enables customers to take a quiz that provides personalized shade recommendations based on the user's color and finish preferences. Customers can also search through Estée Lauder's full assortment of lip shades, or perform a search-by-color, which allows shoppers to search for merchandise using an uploaded digital photo. Recommended shades can then be virtually tried-on and purchased.

Estée Lauder’s lipstick chatbot is the next step in the partnership between the two companies, which launched an AR-based solution in May. The tool enables online shoppers to virtually try on and test different cosmetics prior to making a purchase.

"One of the key pillars of our partnership with ModiFace is the application of augmented reality and artificial intelligence across all platforms where customers interact with our brand," said Stephane de La Faverie, global brand president, Estée Lauder. "Messaging applications, such as Facebook Messenger, are the perfect platform for consumers to search, explore, try-on, and ideally purchase Estée Lauder products."

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TECHNOLOGY

Report: Back-to-school shopping grows less predictable

BY Marianne Wilson

Even back-to-school shopping is not what it once was.

U.S. students may still go back to school around the same general time each year, but the timing of BTS shopping has changed in recent years, becoming less consistent and less predictable. That's according to the Back-to-School report from The NPD Group, which finds that BTS shopping is starting earlier and lasting longer.

While two-thirds of consumers plan to start their back-to-school shopping the same time as last year, 28% said they planned to start earlier, NPD found. Although August claimed the largest share of the 2016 BTS shopping period, 58% of consumers started their shopping before August, and nearly a third completed their shopping before August. And some deferred at least part of there their shopping. A third of 2016 BTS shoppers didn’t finish until September or later, with some making final purchases well into the school year.

"The scope of the back-to-school shopping season has expanded due to the endless shopping opportunities, both in-store and online, enabling consumers to spread their spending out and address needs as they arise,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, The NPD Group. “As a result, the back-to-school shopping season is starting earlier, lasting longer, and expanding beyond the traditional thinking of a single peak retail period. This kind of change is the new constant in retail.”

While almost 60% of consumers indicated that they only buy back-to-school items on sale/discount, timing is also important. When asked about tax-free holidays, more than 40% of consumers make their back-to-school purchases whenever it is most convenient, regardless of these sale dates.

Most shoppers they plan to spend about the same or more on most categories. Some key findings include:

• More than 45% of consumers plan to increase their spending on fashion and school supplies, the top categories for the season.

• Spending plans on electronics are more evenly divided with a third of consumers planning on spending more, and 38% planning on spending less.

• Over a third of consumers plan to spend more on personal care and grooming products this year.

• College-focused categories like bedding, kitchen items and small electrics may be less of a priority, with 45% indicating that they plan to spend less on these products than they did last year.

“The challenge for today’s retailers, both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce, is to bring the excitement of back-to-school shopping back into the equation for all students, from kindergarten through their final year of college," added Cohen.

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