e-commerce director, Home Depot Canada

Even simple home-improvement projects can take a lot of time if you want to do them right. Wait for the stain to set on the previously unfinished chair before applying the second coat. Measure twice; cut once. Home Depot Canada, purveyor of home improvement products, takes an equally careful approach to its Web presence.

The firm took to the Web late: in November 2003, and even then only with about 70 products for sale through HomeDepot.ca. By that time, plenty other companies had already settled their Web properties. Of course, plenty other companies had also abandoned the Internet and their dot-com dreams. Home Depot Canada aimed not to become a casualty.

That’s part of the reason for the company’s go-slow attitude to the ‘Net — a turtle-like pace that came to fruition last fall, when Home Depot Canada populated its site with more than just a few home improvement baubles. Now there are 4,500 items for sale on HomeDepot.ca.

“I think a lot of people early on wanted to be very bleeding edge with the latest technology,” said Simon Rodrigue, Home Depot Canada’s point person for the Web. “I don’t think in any business, e-commerce or otherwise, technology is the answer. Technology is an enabler. It’s people that really drive you forward.”I don’t think in any business, e-commerce or otherwise, technology is the answer. Technology is an enabler. It’s people that really drive you forward.Simon Rodrigue>Text But it takes time to forge the strong people relationships that Home Depot Canada aimed to create before raising its full-formed Web site. For this company, three groups were crucial: customers, partners, and in-house talent. Home Depot Canada spent 2004 learning about its client base. It learned, for instance, that customers turn to the Web for research. Even as they visit e-commerce sites, it’s often to learn and to compare prices or product specs.

Rodrigue said Home Depot Canada ran with the trend. “Our Web site is heavily skewed towards providing that piece of assistance for the consumer, whether it’s building a house, or a deck, or how to change a light fixture. We find that a lot of consumers, when they first come onto our Web site, that’s their entry point.”

In its role as a research tool, the Web site features not only product specs, but also schedules for in-store how-to sessions, information on installation services and tool rentals.

Home Depot Canada brought some lessons north from the U.S., where its southern brother HomeDepot.com has been serving customers since the late-1990s. One important bit of education: the return process has to be seamless. Easy returns make HomeDepot.com a popular site, Rodrigue said; HomeDepot.ca wanted a piece of the action.

“We made sure any returns made, either through our direct catalogue business or e-commerce, are very easy to do,” Rodrigue said. “[Customers] don’t have to go back to the store. They can call the call centre and have the product picked up and have the refund applied, or the exchange made.

“It was very important to the Canadian marketplace,” he continued, noting a major difference between Canada and the U.S.: there are Home Depot stores all over the States, so returns, even if Home Depot skipped the seamless online method (it didn’t), would be relatively simple. In Canada, “a lot of our sales are made where we don’t have stores,” Rodrigue said. It’s important to have a solid Web-return policy here as a result.

Home Depot Canada is a big fan of partnerships. The firm susses out best-of-breed advisors and technology providers to bring certain aspects of HomeDepot.ca to life. Citibank, for instance, hosts the credit card application and account information section.

“They’ve been doing this since Internet banking started,” Rodrigue said of the financial services firm.

Partnerships augment the internal Web team, which is small by design. “We wanted to be agile; we found the partnership model made the most sense. That way we could bring people in to react very quickly.”

“It’s also a matter of working with new ideas,” Rodrigue said. “I think if you have an internal team, one of the disadvantages is you have a certain skill set and on the Internet, things change very quickly. Having the ability to leverage new technologies or new applications is very important.”

The retailer is picky about its partners, aiming to work with providers that act as if HomeDepot.ca is as much their responsibility as it is Home Depot Canada’s. As for the internal team, Rodrigue doesn’t seek bleeding edge gurus so much as “well rounded” individuals who have a passion for the job.

“Focus on the people,” he said. It’s a best practice that Rodrigue figures should help HomeDepot.ca become as big a brand online as Home Depot is in the bricks and mortar, home improvement retail world — in time.

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