From "Brand in the Hand," the ProSales cover story in September 2017
Illustration by C.J. Burton From "Brand in the Hand," the ProSales cover story in September 2017

Whoever in 2009 created Apple’s advertising slogan “There’s an app for that” surely didn’t have in mind any apps for construction supply. But now, at last, Apple’s claim is coming true.

Thirty-one companies in the ProSales 100 said they plan to create applications for mobile devices this year, more than any other technology advancement. A few dozen others already have apps ready for download. Most are less than a couple of years old.

Some dealers are creating apps because apps make it easier for their customers to get vital information, such as when deliveries will arrive, on which date the next bill is due, and what it takes to register for coming events. Other dealers’ apps help employees by providing human resources and administrative functions via smartphone. And some hope to appeal to the typical customer, showing where to find a store, what products are available, and how many reward points the customer has.

All bring to smartphones a suite of tools and capabilities that, until now, has largely been restricted to desktop computers. Apps “reduce the distance from the dealer to the customer,” as one software developer puts it. And they offer the added bonus of promoting the dealer every time customers view their smartphone screens.

The Phone Becomes a Window
“We have a firm belief that mobile devices are a boon to solving some of our customers’ key everyday pain points that a desktop application is inherently incapable of solving, given that very few of our customers are staffed behind a desk,” says Senthil Arumugam, vice president of distribution at US LBM, one of the earlier dealers to create an app. “The smartphone boom has given us a new window to help professional remodeler, commercial, and custom home builder customers carry their business with us at their own place and time of choosing. This offers incredible possibilities to explore.”

Most of the dealers who have launched apps say it’s too early to declare them complete successes. They also point out that build-it-and-they-will-come mobile solutions require substantial marketing campaigns to spur adoption and use among customers, and they depend on a pristine back-of-house IT platform for bug-free operation and functionality.

Nevertheless, you can tell dealers regard apps as a potential competitive advantage because so many are shy about discussing them. Both 84 Lumber and Kuiken Brothers are mostly mum on their progress toward mobile apps. It is mainly companies with apps already in use in the field that are willing to share.

Start With the Basics
At Carter Lumber in Ohio and Parr Lumber in Oregon, their version 1.0, bare-bones app deployments were purposefully basic to help the dealers debug issues, gauge user interest, and determine a course toward next-gen applications without disrupting daily deliveries and cash flow.

“We recognized several years ago the need to have a customer-facing mobile app and discussed all kinds of functionality and bells and whistles we could incorporate,” says Mark Ely, Carter Lumber’s director of marketing. “Ultimately, we opted to go with a version that provided some of the top information requests we get from contractors every day, including how close they are to the nearest Carter location, driving directions to that location, and information on their rewards account.”

ProSales cover September 2017

At Parr, the app is employee-facing. It has streamlined corporate communications while boosting the efficiency of human resources and administrative processes. “We figured we would start with our employees first, in terms of communication and push notifications for inclement weather or any instance where we need to get info out quickly,” says Parr’s marketing director, Nancy Cranston.

“Our forklift operators and load builders and truck drivers don’t have desktop access, but they all have smartphones," Cranston adds. "And with the app they can schedule vacations, get benefits information, or even adjust their 401(k). We’ll see how it works and where the bugs are before we go to an app for the contractors.”

Empowering Customers and OSRs
US LBM was similarly cautious, for both internal and external reasons. It spent a full two years optimizing its point-of-sale and inventory systems before even considering whether to provide account access to customers via an app. At the same time, it had to judge how many innovations the customer could accept at one time.

“Like any new technology, it can be overwhelming to pack a lot of features all at once into an app,” Arumugam says. “Hence, we have designed our roadmap to ease them in rather than to force them into this new technology.”

The app that US LBM created empowers customers to track jobsite deliveries with real-time GPS updates, view photos of a delivered order, search delivery history, view invoices and bills, access promotions, and register for coming events. It was rolled out first for US LBM’s Hines Supply division and since then has been adapted for use at other divisions. Each comes with its own branding.

US LBM expects to begin offering product-availability features in the near future but has slowed the programming. It aims to enable a more thoughtful integration of the complex purchasing role that outside sales reps play in getting pro customers what they need when and where they need it.

“We believe real-time delivery tracking, billing access, and proof of delivery are must-haves and are already incorporated into our app, with product information and availability checks not far behind,” Arumugam says. “But the ordering experience has to be carefully crafted to make it simpler and easier for the customer and not merely as a way to reduce our workload. And our sales reps are such a critical part of our customer experience and support that any app-based ordering should find the best way to incorporate them into the process.”

Carter also is paying critical attention to its outside sales reps (OSRs) as a primary user of any app the company develops.

“The OSRs play an invaluable consultative role with our builder customers that will never go away,” Ely says. “Any successful purchasing app will be one that they will want and need to use in working with our customers. They are definitely one of our core users.”

Getting More Technical
Kevin Hodge directs product development and product management at Epicor Software, which has built private-label mobile apps for 30-plus pro suppliers across North America. He says most pro dealer apps focus on three tasks: managing deliveries, picking and receiving products, and counting inventory.

In that first category, ABC Supply launched in February 2015 a mobile-optimized software platform called ABC Connect that enables contractors to place orders via smartphone. The app was built by AccuLynx, a software developer located just across the Rock River from ABC headquarters in Beloit, Wis.

“The core needs from the contractor side are the ability to see their order for accuracy, see delivery updates, and see invoices to manage payment,” Hodge says. “Pro apps are therefore not as retail as Home Depot and Lowe’s but are more geared to reducing the distance between the dealer and the customer.”

Carter Lumber’s app doesn’t do that now, but “Just from looking at retailers like Amazon and Zappos, it’s clear that's where the future is headed,” says Ely. “While our contractors haven’t demanded that level of functionality yet, we do expect them to in the coming years.”

Hodge says inside sales and point-of-sale apps are quickly developing and are poised to replace the century-old cash register in stores. “Transaction management is another thing we’re increasingly doing to enable sales reps, via iPad or iPhone, to set up new accounts and accept credit card payments,” he says.

Ely believes further development will likely be triggered by smartphone-using millennials as they assume greater roles in estimating, purchasing, and jobsite management. “There is an entire generation growing into our industry that use phones exclusively for practically everything they do, and that’s all they use,” he says.

The App’s Cousins
For all the development work going on, you don’t need apps to provide many of the tools that dealers offer today. For instance, while Carter Lumber gave its drivers an app that automatically moves time-stamped photos of jobsite deliveries into the dealer’s database, drivers for many other dealers have been taking photos of deliveries with their phones and shipping the pictures to the home office—no app required.

Also keeping it simple, Maine-based Hancock Lumber (ProSales’ 2017 Dealer of the Year) built a system that sends text messages to customers and in-house staff whenever a special order arrives at the yard and is processed for delivery.

For contractors, it may be easier to send a text to get delivery confirmation or add or subtract items to an order than to download and manage those processes via a mobile app on the jobsite.

GPS devices have been giving truck drivers turn-by-turn directions for years. And for just about any particular task you can imagine, there’s already a stand-alone app for that. So why would dealers want to create an app?

Because you can brand it.

“Even with an employee-focused app, we’ve been able to differentiate in the market,” Cranston says. “It’s so hard to find labor now and people are hiring people away from each other. It’s a challenge to retain what we have, and the ability for our employees to refer others via app has been a big push as part of our overall mobile initiative.”

Ely says Carter continues to evaluate the app ecosystem by keeping tabs on big ecommerce players, including Amazon and Google. “There is a change coming in the business-to-business customer experience of pro supply, and we do expect to eventually have the majority of our systems and services happening on a smartphone. When that happens is uncertain, but it is an eventuality we think is inevitable.”

See also a roundup of this year's top LBM technology advances as well as Craig Webb's editorial on why IT improvements take so much time to implement.