At the speed technology changes, it may seem impossible to keep up with what’s best for your operation or even know where to start. It may seem as though the minute you implement the latest and greatest solution, it’s already obsolete. To help you plan your tech journey, Hardware Retailing spoke with several home improvement retailers who shared their road maps and the routes you can take to successfully bring technology into your operation.
Assessing Your Needs
Like any road trip, starting on the journey toward technology requires planning and begins with asking the question, “Where do I want to go?” To know what types of technology will work best for your business, you need to have a clear understanding of your goals as an operation and what you want to accomplish.
For the past 24 years, Jason Heimberger has worked for Sunshine Ace Hardware, which has 12 locations in southwest Florida. He started sweeping the floors after school and worked his way to the role of IT administrator, where he now oversees all the technology programs the company utilizes and handles data analytics, including forecasting and sales reviews. Heimberger says his team regularly interacts with the sales associates and other in-store personnel to get a feel for what technology could make their jobs easier in their various areas of expertise.
“We speak with employees across the company to gauge what additional technologies might help them in their jobs and how current technology is working for them,” he says. “We also observe what challenges they are facing that we might be able to solve with new or updated technology. It’s all about monitoring the work environment and looking for ways to make their tasks more efficient and easier.”
By observing employees in action, Heimberger noticed that an employee often had to leave a customer in the aisle of the store to look up information on a computer or answer a phone call on the landline. The answer to this customer service conundrum was the Zebra handheld mobile computer.
“With these handheld devices, employees are able to stay with the customer on the salesfloor, answer that customer’s question and ultimately, provide a higher level of customer service,” Heimberger says. “They also double as portable phones, so employees can look up product information and answer phone calls without having to leave the customer.”
Assessing your technology needs can also be as simple as improving on what you already have, which is the route Grunthal Lumber in Manitoba, Canada, took. Since joining the company in 2008, store manager Mike Bourgeois has focused on different ways the company can set itself apart from its competition.
One of the ways the company has accomplished the goal of offering something different is through its virtual drafting program. The design and drafting department at Grunthal Lumber can take any house plan and provide a virtual reality (VR) experience for its customers, where the customer can walk around and see what their new home or renovation will look like before they ever start to build. Colors, finishes, cabinets, walls, roofs and even furniture can all be customized and revised to meet customers’ needs.
“The VR program reassures customers that they are getting what they want,” Bourgeois says. “Some customers have a hard time visualizing what a space is going to look like, and this program gives them that ability.”
The VR technology was an additional feature of a program the company was already using. Grunthal Lumber draftsperson Byron Wiebe brought the feature to the attention of company leadership as an opportunity.
“He’s pretty creative and also has the mindset of finding ways to set our operation apart,” Bourgeois says. “When he found out about this new feature, he did the research and saw how it could benefit our customers and allow us to provide something different.”
Finding the Right Fit
Once you’ve picked your road trip destination, next comes finding places to stay, dine and explore. The same holds true when planning for technology; once you have a clearer idea of the technology you need, the next step is searching for the right solution and vendor. For Heimberger at Sunshine Ace Hardware, he looks at what fellow retailers are doing in terms of technology and connects with those who have added the types of technology he thinks would benefit his operation. He also observes what retailers outside the industry are doing.
“When we were adding the Theatro mobile communications system to our stores, I was shopping at Walgreens and noticed they were using the same system. Basically, I interviewed the associates at the store and gathered as much information from them as I could,” Heimberger says. “I like to observe when I’m out as a consumer and take that information back to our business.”
To find the right technology fit for its operation, Grunthal Lumber employs a tech consultant, Steven Lepp, who handles the company’s point-of-sale (POS) and other computer systems. Grunthal Lumber is in the process of updating its POS, and Lepp has been communicating with various POS vendors and setting up meetings between the vendor and management.
“After each presentation, we debrief and discuss the pros and cons of that system,” Bourgeois says. “It’s nice that Steven does the research and sets up these presentations so we can focus on choosing the right option.”
Bringing Employees Aboard
If your travel partners aren’t on board with the itinerary, your trip can take a detour. Without buy-in from your employees, your efforts to implement technology can also hit a major roadblock. In his experience, Heimberger says he has found it’s crucial to explain to employees why a certain technology is important to the business and how it can help them do their jobs more efficiently. He says they try to have these conversations in advance of any technology launch, so when the store ultimately rolls out a technology, the employees have already heard about it and had time to digest the information.
“I talk to each store manager and explain why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Heimberger says. “Instead of just relaying the message through the manager, I’ll also talk to the associates and share how it will help them and make their jobs easier.”
It’s also key for a company to have support from the top down, Heimberger says.
“We have buy-in from our support office, upper management and all the way down, which goes a long way to bringing all the employees on board,” he says.
Thorough training is also imperative to getting employees on board with new technology. Bourgeois says once the new POS system is in place at Grunthal Lumber, they will offer several training opportunities. The company plans to host several lunch-and-learn sessions where all employees can enjoy a meal while learning the ins and outs of the new system.
“We’ve found with our employees the more hands-on training they can get, the better,” Bourgeois says. “Using hands-on learning allows them to pick it up quicker than someone just explaining it to them. They can make mistakes in a controlled environment and learn from those errors.”