The Yellow Pages concept is moving from websites to hardware stores.
Consumers buying recessed lights, a faucet or rhododendrons can now walk away with the name of a neighborhood electrician, plumber or landscaper before they leave the store.
Both Lowe's and Home Depot actively tout their contractor installation programs. Each offers subcontractors on 25 to 50 projects such as water heater replacement. Menards has a more informal program where it displays a few dozen contractors' business cards.
And now Lowe's has gone a step further by partnering with home improvement startup Porch.com to provide consumer access to 1.5 million professionals and 100 million projects around the country in all of its 1,700 stores. "It's a combination of Angie's List, review sites and Pinterest, " said Matt Ehrlichman, CEO of Porch.com, "a LinkedIn for the home."
Consumers are wanting more from hardware stores than just supplies and tools. They expect do-it-yourself help in the form of videos, online tutorials, in-house seminars and one-on-one assistance from a sales clerk. But if they get in over their heads and the project is best left to a pro, they often look to a hardware store, big or small.
These kinds of referral systems are a step up from the Yellow Pages, said Dave Brennan, co-director of the University of St. Thomas Institute for Retailing Excellence. "The consumer gets to see how long the company has been in business, a little bit about it, and any recommendations from previous customers."
Porch.com attempts to help businesses and consumers connect on a bigger scale. Hardware stores generate significant business from contractors, and referrals are an easy way to add sales. It's free for any business to create a profile and upload pictures of past projects. Consumers can look for service providers in their neighborhood, photos of past work and average pricing, licensing and credentials.
They can access the information through a sales associate, who will then print a list of contractors, or they can access the Porch.com directory by plugging in the type of service provider and their ZIP code.
But the new service may leave some consumers underwhelmed by the number of contractors listed and lack of consumer endorsements. Brennan found only a few local businesses with reviews, and some types of contract work had only one business listed. Still, the nationwide rollout is only a week old.
Other retailers offer similar but smaller programs. Home Depot offers more than 25 installation services from vetted contractors such as flooring, bath, HVAC, kitchen and doors and windows. Shoppers can make arrangements in the store or by visiting Homedepot.com/install.
Menards does not have its own installation/service department, but it displays business cards of local professionals at its Building Materials desk, and its employees may be able to recommend a service provider.
Lowe's has an installation program of about 50 services, including hardwood flooring, cabinetry and appliances, but the Porch.com collaboration fills in the holes of services that weren't offered before, said spokeswoman Amanda Manna.
Free 'value added' profiles
Lowe's and Porch.com do not charge businesses to be listed, although Porch.com solicits businesses to pay a fee for a premium membership that can give more prominent placement in the list.
Manna said the free profiles are an added value for its customers and service providers. "We help suppliers build their business, and we hope they'll buy their supplies at Lowe's," she said.
But there's nothing forcing them to do so. Suzanne Boyer, who owns and operates Xstream Plumbing in Minneapolis, signed up on Porch.com late last year after a friend in North Carolina told her about a pilot program there.
She isn't sure how many referrals she'll get in the new program, but doubts that it will cause her to switch to Lowe's, which has 11 Minnesota locations. "Most of my business comes from south Minneapolis, Edina and Bloomington. There isn't a Lowe's near there," she said.
Local businesses are more used to getting referrals from consumer-based organizations that rate service providers and charge a fee. Companies such as Angie's List and Checkbook are quick to point out significant differences between their services and Lowe's new offering.
Possibly skewed results
Robert Krughoff, president of the nonprofit Checkbook.org, which publishes Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook, said Porch.com is not a discriminating way to choose a good firm.
"Consumers can endorse a business on porch.com, but it's not clear how it will be monitored," he said. "Do we know if the ballot box is being stuffed?"
The lack of negative reviews also concerns Krughoff. Consumers need a ratio between positive and negative reviews. "If people can endorse a business but not criticize it, that's not a fair picture," he said.
Ehrlichman says that Porch.com isn't in the business of recommendations. "We let the neighbors do it," he said.
Currently, there is no option to include negative reviews. Ehrlichman doesn't delist any businesses, either. If a business is providing poor service, they will be low in the rankings, he said.
Angie Hicks, founder of Angie's List, which has nearly 50,000 subscribers in the Twin Cities and 2 million nationwide, believes that consumers need to consider the integrity of the data, regardless of the source.
"Consumers can add pictures and videos of a project and search only for reviews in their neighborhood on Angie's List, just like on Porch," she said, "but they also see non-anonymous ratings based on price, punctuality, responsiveness and quality."
Angie's List also offers its subscribers, who pay about $39 annually, a complaint resolution service, a magazine and discounts on services.
Even with the Porch.com referral system, it's still the consumer's responsibility to vet the business, said Manna. "We aren't recommending a specific provider, just providing a list of options, but the customer can see the number of people they've worked for in their neighborhood."