By Angus Loten
Plumbing suppliers in Texas are marshaling stopgap digital technology installed during the pandemic to meet a surge in demand for replacement pipes, valves and fittings damaged in last week’s winter storm.
Ferguson PLC, the nation’s largest supplier with more than 1,400 locations, earlier this week had plumbers lining up outside many of its 180-plus stores across the state, the company said. At the height of the storm, several of its Texas stores were forced to shut down, though all have since reopened, according to the company.
In the storm’s aftermath, the number of daily customer calls has doubled as plumbers and homeowners scramble for parts and services, said Julia Bell, the company’s district operations manager in Texas.
To handle increased traffic, Ms. Bell said, many floor-sales staff have been reassigned to work behind the counter. To do that, stores leveraged Teams, Microsoft Corp.’s cloud-based collaboration tool. The company began using Teams during the pandemic to build a stronger network between its U.S. corporate office in Newport News, Va., and its stores nationwide.
During the storm, store managers and company executives used the tool to better communicate business-critical information statewide, from location closures and openings to product availability, Ms. Bell said. “In the past, this information may have been buried in email.”
A chat group created within the tool served as an internal help desk, she said, where more experienced workers could instantly pass along how-tos to store associates who had never worked at a checkout counter.
A texting app, also launched during the pandemic, has enabled the company to send instant alerts to plumbers and other professionals when online orders are ready to be picked up, Ms. Bell said.
The long stretch of frigid weather in Texas and other states, which began early last week, caused an estimated $18 billion in damage , according to insurance assessors.
Much of that stems from frozen pipes, which burst inside Texas homes and businesses following rolling blackouts that knocked out electricity and heating systems. Temperatures have since warmed up, though water-quality issues continued to linger this week.
The state, which has roughly 80,000 licensed plumbers, waived some licensing restrictions over the weekend to allow plumbing apprentices to help out with emergency repairs, according to the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners.
Michael Sajor, Ferguson’s global chief information officer, said the measures the company has taken during the pandemic have “absolutely helped” keep trade professionals working in the wake of the storm: “We’re part of the construction industry — working around and through inclement weather is in our genes,” he said.
After temporarily closing 250 U.S. stores in the early months of Covid-19, the U. K-based company raced to expand digital services and support — including curbside and locker pickups, and delivery alerts timed within minutes of packages’ arrival at a job site — hoping to capture a sharp upturn in home improvement projects by homebound consumers with extra savings, Mr. Sajor said.
It spread these and other capabilities over different channels, from in-store service, to calls, emails and texts, Mr. Sajor said, allowing trade professionals to choose what worked best for them.
“When your customers are upside down in a cupboard under a sink, they will use whatever channel they can get to reach you,” he said.
Home Depot Inc., which has roughly 180 stores in Texas — the second largest number behind California — was also able to keep serving plumbers and other customers by leveraging digital capabilities developed during the pandemic, said Matt Carey, the company’s CIO. Only a handful of locations were forced to close during the storm, and all have since reopened, the company said.
Among other digital tools, these include mobile apps for curbside-pickup services and real-time inventory-tracking software.
“Because we build on the cloud, our technology is highly scalable and provides speed and agility,” Mr. Carey said. “That is critical when taking care of our associates and customers during severe weather events and beyond.
He said the company’s inventory dashboards enable local teams to make rapid changes to the flow of products through a network of distribution centers, quickly replenishing parts and equipment in high demand using product-allocation algorithms.
During the storm, the company gave priority to and rerouted shipments of generators, space heaters, pipes, insulation and similar products to stores that needed them most, Mr. Carey said. Mobile apps allowed professional and retail customers to view product availability at nearby stores and place orders, he said.
Write to Angus Loten at [email protected] Zoom.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires