How The Home Depot Managed Its Digital Presence During And After Historic Hurricanes

Communities in Houston, Texas, South Florida, and Puerto Rico are still reeling from the devastating impact of the season’s “historic” hurricanes of Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

In those times, home improvement and hardware stores like The Home Depot take on a higher-than-normal degree of essential service in uncertain days before, during, and after a disaster hits as consumers plan protection and recovery.

Digital Presence Management – the process of ensuring that all vital brick-and-mortar store info such as address, phone, email, hours, etc.… — and the use of location technology were particularly important in how Home Depot, which operates roughly 2,200 locations in the U.S., were able to help employees and customers around its dozens of outlets in hurricane areas prepare and cope for the aftermath, Justin Dilley, senior product management leader for The Home Depot, told GeoMarketing following an appearance on a panel at The LBMA’s Retail Loco Atlanta conference last week.

In the meantime, The Home Depot is continuing to operate its local command centers in the places affected by Harvey, Irma, and Maria. In addition, The Home Depot Foundation has pledged $500,000 to the Hurricane Maria relief effort in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and is increasing its disaster relief commitment to $3 million since Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in August, the company said in a release last week.

Home Depot’s Hurricane Harvey volunteers assemble in Houston. Source: Home Depot

GeoMarketing: What role did location technology play in managing and providing information about Home Depot stores in areas affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma last month?

Justin Dilley: It was a two-pronged approach. We had a huge team of people at the command center that was able to manage much of the operations in terms of both understanding what stores were open and when they were open. Secondly, we needed to make sure customers and employees were aware of that information in real-time.

You couple that with what we already know about our customers – for example, we know customers are localized to a certain store in a certain area. We can provide some information directly either in app notifications or messaging.

Getting the word out about store availability also relied on traditional email or other CRM communication tools. We want to let them know that this is a dynamic, fluid situation, but we want our local customers and employees to have the latest information. From there, we can provide the avenues to consume that information. One of them is the most obvious: the mobile app. You pull that up. You’re localized to a specific store in Houston, let’s say. We’ve got a nice little kind of cart that will say your closest Houston store’s location and hours. We were constantly and dynamically updating that information because sometimes, we would be open for two hours. Sometimes, we would be closed.

So the goal of both protecting our associates working in the store as well as being there to support our customer base showed how essential location technologies are be able to provide customers with important, real-time information.

As we know, Hurricanes Irma and Harvey were historic. Did The Home Depot have a set action plan in place that helped organize and prepare for the responsiveness you provided based on previous hurricane seasons? Or was the company and local stores able to simply being able to react suddenly to storms that were forecast only days in advance?

The company has a great deal of history with events that have large-scale customer impact in general. So I think the processes and procedures were there and we were well prepared to react to whatever was happening in the moment.

The first thing that we did once we started we realize this was going to be a rather major thing for us to face was we established a whole command center which had a number of employees working and reacting to and sharing real-time information of what’s going on. They represented direct feet on the street, so to speak, and were able to broadly monitor what was happening in affected areas.

Source: Home Depot

I was wondering how these situations might influence the use of technologies and processes during more mundane moments. For example, people who are either preparing for a hurricane or dealing with the aftermath have specific needs. And Home Depot’s 2,200 stores are so huge: roughly 100,000 square feet on average. How do you help customers find exactly what they’re looking for?

We just did kind of some additional pilot testing late last year for in-store proximity and location technologies. We looked at beacons and decided they weren’t right for our specific store needs. What we ultimately found was that we just couldn’t get the precision that we wanted.

As I mentioned, the average store is big – 105,000 square feet is the actual average. Grossly, it’s easy to get to customers to aisle 1 or aisle 40. But our bays and the location of our products are so diverse, that it’s not just enough for us to say, “Go to aisle 1 to find this plumbing elbow.”

That plumbing elbow could be located at the middle of a very long aisle, it could be at the front or the back. The best customer experience involves us trying to lead consumers directly to the product they’re looking for.

And if we could just have a little beacon that would go off, saying, “Go grab this,” that’s the kind of the customer experience that we would want to deliver. But we just weren’t able to get that precision with beacon so.

When it comes to in-store technology, what kinds of solutions are you looking for now?

Wayfinding is a huge use case that has a number of different avenues that you can go down. We feel really passionate about trying to figure out how to enable functions that make it easier to find an entrance and the right spot in an aisle

If I’m a customer, I’ve got a shopping list of products. So the problem we want to solve is what is the best way for me as a customer to get from the store entrance, pick all those products up, and then get back to the register to be able to check out. You don’t want go from aisle 1 to 40, back to 1. So we can provide some value through the app with a real-time routing based on your shopping list. We think that’s a really important use case for our customers and something we’re actively working towards