Technology can either be part of the décor or an intrinsic theme in the way the interiors of a home improvement business are designed. Let’s take a proper house-tour and find out more.
Here’s how a home improvement player is rearranging the furniture of customer impact with the right alignment of technology and business. ‘We would not jump on the bandwagon just for its sake’, stresses Mayur Purandar, VP Enterprise Architecture, Lowe’s India as he shows a blueprint of how this business space is being made alive and sharp with AI, AR, Metaverse and in-built platforms. He also tells why home-grown tech is working better here than packaged tech.
Your approach to AI/ML and digital forces is quite distinct—it’s holistic and product-embedded, and not isolated. Can you elaborate on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ here? Any examples you can share? Also, how easy is it to achieve this deep and end-to-end approach?
For both AI/ML and transactional systems, the customer is the same—that’s why we have taken a holistic and product-embedded approach. For example, if we are doing pricing analysis, the consumer of that analysis and the consumer of the transactional system, who is authoring prices and promotions, are the same; therefore, if it’s not product embedded, there is going to be a lot of context-switching for the end-user. For this reason, we don’t build separate products for running transactions and running AI/ML algorithms. Another classic AI/ML probe people work on is demand forecasting. When forecasting demand at a specific location, it needs to be entered into the demand plans. However, if you have your demand forecasting outside of the planning inventory system, it becomes two different experiences and it’s bound to be full of friction and buy-in errors. Therefore, it needs to be put in one product i.e., both demand planning and forecasting should happen in one go. The idea is to put the customer first; hence, a holistic approach is necessary.
Lowe’s metaverse assets – including free downloads of 500 product assets, including items such as chairs – are based on real products.
What are some major highlights of the use of technology and its impact—that come to your mind when you look back at the last two years? Any Pandemic Playbook lessons that stay on?
On a tactical front, I could think of two things. Firstly scale: We had enormous customer traffic during the pandemic, so our systems had to scale. The second is tech and for that, we have used AR/VR technology because people weren’t allowing the installers to come home. Through this we have understood a few things: Situations where we need enormous speed, will keep arising, so we need to look for the ability to release new features fast and react swiftly to these situations. Therefore, we have taken a platform-centric approach. We are investing a lot in platforms that can be rewired to quickly respond to these business changes instead of taking months to react.
How is Augmented Reality/Virtual reality (AR/VR) and metaverse relevant for this industry? Any initial thoughts or plans?
Metaverse is not a new concept. We had similar concepts in the past, such as ‘Second Life’—a completely digital universe disconnected from the physical world, where people could set up universities, shops etc., in that virtual world and earn from the same. I believe Second Life was ahead of its time and in the current scenario, Metaverse is probably more relevant. So, instead of just using Metaverse as a touchpoint to connect to customers, you can use it to run your business. For instance, you could have the installation process showcased virtually with your experts present there and the customers to visit your virtual store using their AR-VR headsets, etc. and experience the entire procedure without ever leaving their homes. It is, however, a bit rough around the edges right now, but the possibilities are immense. We are already using AR/VR to drive better customer experiences and continue to evaluate the possibilities with Metaverse. At Lowe’s, we offer our customers a chance to use metaverse assets to help visualize building projects. Lowe’s metaverse assets – including free downloads of 500 product assets, including items such as chairs – are based on real products we currently sell online and in stores. This gives the customer a chance to experiment, get inspired, and place it in the virtual world to get a feel of what they would want in their reality.
We are already using AR/VR to drive better customer experiences and continue to evaluate the possibilities with Metaverse.
How do you address overall ecosystem immaturity and long learning curves whenever you get excited about new technology adoption?
We are a home improvement retail organization, and our approach is to look at the business problems that need to be solved. We take the best possible tech that would help us solve it. Just because some new technology comes along does not mean we would jump on the bandwagon just for its sake. The new tech would have to align with our business needs first. The process is a bit more nuanced. Speaking about learning: for us, it is a continuous journey. For any new relevant tech, we would be looking at certain things like if we have the skills to use the same and if the businesses’ need of the hour demands a new tech solution for which we would need to upskill ourselves; accordingly, we will adapt and learn. It’s a part of our ever-evolving learning culture.
Any highlights from the engineering center in Bangalore? How/why did homegrown tech take over from packaged tech?
At Lowe’s we have a global technology team that comes together to build the next retail technology solutions. We have an almost equal split of the number of engineers between the U.S. and India as part of our tech team. Our associates in the U.S. and India have to collaborate to deliver value and great associate experiences. The India team is heavily involved in platform work, while the U.S. team focuses more on associate experience and business processes. The idea is to put the work where it can be done most efficiently, and then enable the right kind of collaboration to make the solutions come to life.
Predominantly, our business focuses on home improvement; keeping our business requirements in mind, we have learned that packaged tech doesn’t work when solving unique problems, it only addresses a wide range of common issues across retailers. Owing to our unique nature, we use homegrown and bespoke solutions, which makes us successful.
As a trend, we see that homegrown tech is taking over packaged tech and for multiple reasons. Speaking specifically about Lowe’s, our volumes are enormous. Our catalogue, traffic, orders per hour, etc., are far too massive for any packaged tech to scale. Additionally, our products aren’t standard ‘see-and-buy’ products. When you sell everything from a basic hammer to a complete patio remodeling equipment set or a customized door, the variety in product types makes it impossible for standard packaged tech to support our operations.
Let’s take supply chain technology suites to understand this further. Our distribution centers are enormous, with high order fulfillment points. In such a case, packaged tech suites wouldn’t be able to cater to our needs, which is why we are building a homegrown tech for order management.
Anything interesting from your upcoming plans on technology?
We are building a developer portal for all our engineers. This platform will make all our engineers follow the same software development process irrespective of where they run their software and it could be anywhere from the cloud to the data centre. All this will come together in an internal platform—Carbon—which keeps the engineer or the developer experience at the forefront, focusing on customers and building it end-to-end.
Vice President, Enterprise Architecture, Lowe’s
By Pratima H