Home Depot Speaks Interface-to-Face

Digitalization is forcing Home Depot to revisit its processes, from site to store, to meet customer expectations. Naveen Krishna explains how he’s incorporating today’s technology into retail to explore its digital potential.

Catapulting online revenues from $350 million to nearly $4 billion in only five years is bound to turn some heads. Since becoming Home Depot’s vice president of online and mobile technology, Naveen Krishna has reenvisioned the company’s use of technology to better connect with its customer base and drive growth. In one fell swoop, the move has distinguished the home improvement behemoth from other retailers.

The role of digital platforms for retail organizations is not the future; it’s the present. “The degree of digitalization that we are going through is, to a heavy, heavy degree, driven by our customer needs and what our customer expectations are,” says Krishna, who also warns that digitalization for digitalization’s sake will render businesses obsolete.

13m

Daily visitors to Home Depot’s website

1.4b

Transactions per year

700k

SKUs carried

50%

Online revenue growth in 2013

Instead, the primary objective should be to understand customers’ wants and how they use technology. Consumers don’t differentiate between devices, so businesses can’t afford to either. Mobile, for example, is often viewed as an autonomous platform. “Mobile is a part of everything we do,” Krishna says. “It’s not a separate entity. It’s not a separate platform. It’s everything we do.”

Consumer education will only increase demand and the need for organizations to meet it. Home Depot has taken this seriously, building its business practices around the customer and providing solutions such as free in-store wireless. “For us, it is putting our store in people’s pockets,” Krishna says.

Due to the technology available and lowered customer expectations, Home Depot’s user-interface design wasn’t much to talk about five years ago. Minimal smartphone usage made digitalization a moot point, and the UI required minimal updates. That’s no longer the case. Since Krishna joined the company, the Home Depot UI has already received eight major updates, and he expects that it will change more frequently in the coming years. “It is not a project,” Krishna says. “It is not a thing we do once or twice. The way we think about it is that it’s a journey. We’re never done with user experience design.”

The ever-evolving nature of user expectations and the technology around them heavily influences how consumers interact with retailers and how they research and purchase products. “We are in a world where expectations are different by customer; they’re continuously changing,” Krishna says. “We’ve got to figure out how to provide an experience that is relevant and current, and at the same time personalize that experience for every single customer.”

Krishna and his team focus on making every single interaction better by addressing either a customer or an associate pain point. It’s not an easy task: Home Depot sees several million daily website and mobile visitors, in addition to millions of in-store visitors. Krishna’s team has found that many of these interactions are often the same customer using multiple platforms and devices. “Our whole mantra is to provide a seamless experience in respect to where the customer wants to interact with us,” he says.

Because of the ever-changing marketplace, Krishna’s team doesn’t spend a lot of time overly predicting UI needs. He knows they will change, at some unforeseen point, and has the muscle built up to react quickly. “If we build up our capabilities—the people side of it, the technology side of it, the processes, how we engineer software and our front-end experiences—and if we can have the automation or tooling to be very nimble, we can react fast,” he says. “So that is more of what we try to do every single day.”

“Our whole mantra is to provide a seamless experience in respect to where the customer wants to interact with us.”

While the UI constantly transforms, the backend or engine room changes at Home Depot are frequent by design. Krishna’s team uses certain technology pillars to determine strategic decisions with some of the vendor partners and internal team. Such large, transformative leaps require more than just basic front-end interface changes. Heavier technology investment and a greater amount of deep technology expertise are among the many considerations. Those strategic decisions and direction don’t change every quarter.

Five years ago, when Krishna joined Home Depot, the company had a limited online focus. At that point, taking the site down for a couple of hours every night for maintenance was the norm, primarily because the right tooling, technology, people, and processes were not in place on the backend.

“If you look at some of the more front-end, customer-facing technology, you want to be very nimble. You want to be able to turn on a dime, make changes quickly, and get the right experiences,” Krishna says. “But if you look at more of the backend machinery that drives the 2,000-store, 350,000-people ship of Home Depot, turning that ship on a dime is unrealistic; rather, it requires thoughtful execution.”

Because backend changes take a little longer, and it’s difficult to predict future capabilities, staying prepared requires a certain level of forethought. Krishna keeps Home Depot two steps ahead by having multiple plans and executing on all of them. “What do they say—we have a belt, and we also put on our suspenders,” he says. Plans include building out the company’s own tooling and leveraging open-source technologies, as finding off-the-shelf solutions equipped to handle Home Depot’s large-scale needs is rare.

Krishna attributes Home Depot’s success to the people around him. “The digital space is not a one man sport,” he says. “This is a team sport.” A very thin line exists between what is business and what is IT. Therefore, any success requires a complete organization-wide partnership and unwavering focus on a common objective—something Krishna believes Home Depot does well.

According to Krishna, the company is always on the lookout for key partnerships with technology firms to help stay on top of customer expectations in an evolving, interconnected retail world. One such partner Krishna and his team have leveraged over the last three years is Cognizant, who helped improve the velocity of Home Depot’s site releases, enabled automation, and built quality into the company’s software-engineering practices.

So far, according to Krishna, the results of Home Depot’s digitalization have been “phenomenal” and have created a cyclical buying process. By providing a fantastic digital experience and research tools,
the company helps customers find specific products easily and efficiently. Then, during a customer’s subsequent visit to Home Depot stores, associates can use digital technologies to further add value. Incentivized to research a complimentary product, the customer will begin the cycle again. “There is no better metric than repeat customers,” says Krishna, who reports that more than 50 percent of customers use online functions before coming to a Home Depot store.

Never stagnant, Krishna and Home Depot are eyes forward. “This whole space, digitizing retail, is so immature,” says Krishna. “It is so new and it’s evolving—the technology is evolving every day. We don’t have a choice. We have to continuously keep breaking down what we’ve built and build new experiences.” Projects on Krishna’s agenda include focusing on the company’s search capabilities, increasing user personalization, and connecting stores to Home Depot’s online presence and vice versa. He also wants to scale Home Depot’s platforms to meet business growth and automate order processing to make order tracking and customer communications seamless and timely across all platforms.

As boundaries continue to change, the future of technology’s relationship within the retail space remains unclear. Krishna admits that he doesn’t know where it’s going to go, but he’s confident there is another capability around the corner. “We’re really glad how mobile has been working out for us,” he says. “But tomorrow if it were to change, and there’s another technology, we’re ready.”

Photo by Patrick D. Schumacher