The Home Depot (THD) is ratcheting up its efforts to serve pros by rolling out a revamped website and pressing its convenience advantage even harder by speeding up pros' shopping experience, the vice president responsible for the initiatives says.

J.T. Rieves told ProSales in an exclusive interview Monday that changes at The Home Depot already have made it 27% quicker for pros to get in and out of the store than it took them in 2010. "I hope we're at least at parity" now with the time it would take to buy the same goods in a pro lumberyard, he said.

 J.T. Rieves
J.T. Rieves

Rieves focuses on speed because he rates a quick shopping experience among the biggest benefits THD can deliver a customer. The revamped pro website--which he said should go live by Labor Day--figures mightily into that objective by making it even easier for a customer to use THD. One service Rieves particularly likes enables a pro to place an order online and have it ready for pickup when the pro arrives at the store a couple of hours later. "That's a really different experience than coming in and picking up the product yourself," he said by telephone from his Atlanta office. "We think there are a lot of tech solutions where we can keep you out of the store [and hard at work]."

Rieves said the revamped site also will highlight "many other options [for customers] that we haven't told a good story" about. They include situations in which THD will deliver large orders of particular products. It uses third-party carriers for those jobs, and in the case of paint the shipments actually are handled by THD's main paint suppliers.

Rieves, a native of Fort Myers, Fla., is a 24-year veteran of The Home Depot who became vice president of pro business four years ago this month, taking on responsibility for serving the roughly 3% of THD's customers who by company estimates account for at least 30% of annual sales. That works out to roughly $21 billion worth of trade in 2011.

Those 3% generally aren't the new home builders and big remodelers that a lot of pro-oriented LBM dealers cater to, but it does count many types of customers that pro dealers like to serve. Rieves says THD staff tend to count as a pro all people who "earn a living using the product for some other customer." That definition takes in not just remodelers and builders but also home flippers, property managers, companies doing work paid by insurers, government agencies at all levels, and even some commercial contractors. What matters is whether the customer fits particular "descriptors"--categories such as the time of day one shops and types of goods bought that suggest to THD the buyer is a pro.

"You could be someone who buys $100 a year or $1 million a year from us," Rieves said. "How you hit those descriptors is what identifies you as a pro customer."

In general, The Home Depot's pro audience says its likes the big box for its convenient locations and lengthy hours as well as its extensive credit programs. But when Rieves took the job, he said he saw a need to improve the speed of service. So the company created a specialized survey for pros (as with retail customers, it solicits responses via a message on the purchase receipt) and used the company's audit staff to watch videotapes of customer service from the moment a person arrives in the parking lot to the minute he drives away. Rieves said that because of various improvements his department implemented, pro customers now rate THD at least a 9 on a 1-to-10 scale for overall customer service as well as for checkout experience.

Another of Rieves' big initiatives has been to arrange for a staffer to be on hand to help load pros' trucks. "We have not hit a 9 on that, but it's been our greatest improvement," he said.

But it's not just muscle that Rieves hopes to provide. "My hope is that if I pick the right person we can have some dialogue about what you're buying and not buying," he said. "They have a great opportunity to look in the pro's supply closet." And by doing that, an alert loader might notice some non-THD product in the truck and remark that there's a good deal in the store.

THD's research team also has helped Rieves identify geographies and market segments where it makes sense to have bilingual staff on hand. "We have a minimum expectation of bilingual staffing at every pro desk," he said. "We talk about the importance of having a desk that looks and speaks like your pro customers."

Rieves also relies on his own, in-person research. He said he's on the road parts of two weeks in every month, visiting facilities and talking to customers at town hall-style meetings. "First I tell them the state of business from our perspective and then ask about their business: Is it up? Down? Are you working extra time?" he said. "In many cases, you don't get past one or two questions before it takes off and they say, 'Let me tell you what makes me crazy about you guys.'"