Thursday, May 24, 2018
Business

Thurston: Porch referral service at Lowe's caters to do-it-for-me customer

This time of year especially, many homeowners have long lists of projects they'd like to tackle, from replacing a ceiling fan to redoing the yard.

Getting them done is another story.

Lowe's wants to change that through a new referral service available at 1,700 stores for do-it-yourselfers who can't quite do it themselves.

The home improvement store has teamed up with Porch, a Seattle-based startup that connects homeowners and contractors. Shoppers buying a faucet or gallon of paint but don't know a plumber or a painter can ask a salesperson for a referral through porch.com.

Porch started testing the system in January at Lowe's stores in Seattle and North and South Carolina and rolled it out in the Tampa Bay area last week. Signs and brochures direct shoppers to sales associates who can call up a list of local service providers on a store computer.

Unlike Angie's List, which charges about $10 a year, Porch is free to consumers, who get access to photos and prices of projects that have been done in their area. Though home repair businesses can post their profiles for free, the site makes its money from companies that pay $50 a month for "premium'' service that gets their name listed as a featured professional alongside the top rankings.

Contractors appear high in a search list based on the number of customer endorsements and local projects. Porch officials say no one can buy their way to the top through ads or other promotions. All companies must be licensed.

I tried the service last week to fix a broken thermostat. Fifty-three HVAC companies came up that service my Tampa ZIP code. Most listed how long they have been in business and the typical value of the homes they service. Several had maps showing their areas of concentration.

I messaged three through the website that had done jobs near me in comparable homes. One emailed me back.

He came out right away, which I really appreciated, and got the job done quickly for what I thought was a decent price. He was thorough, knowledgeable and helpful — checking the system for refrigerant and pointing out a problematic drain, which he easily fixed.

Interestingly, he had never heard of Porch. He figured the company must have created a profile for him, because he shows up on Internet searches, as is common with new referral services, he said. He has an A rating through the Better Business Bureau.

Porch officials are visiting local stores to sign up contractors and familiarize shoppers with the website.

Patrick Preston, the assistant store manager at the Lowe's at 2365 25th St. N in St. Petersburg, said Porch is a great addition, especially for customers looking for help with small projects. Salespeople get asked for referrals every day but, until now, haven't been allowed to offer recommendations.

Lowe's hopes the multiyear partnership — which involved no money exchange — will increase customer loyalty and help it better compete with Home Depot, which has a similar service called Redbeacon coming to Florida soon.

For Porch, the deal is huge. Launched in September, the service has grown to more than 1.5 million professionals across 250 categories. Its network covers 75 percent of U.S. homes. It has 140 employees compared with 260,000 for Lowe's.

If successful, Porch could become a bigger rival to Yelp, Google + Local and other online handyman referral services. The publicly traded Angie's List boasts 2.6 million members but faces increasing criticism for charging for something customers can get for free. Despite its consumer-centric focus, about 70 percent of its revenue comes from advertising.

It's hard to compete with free and, so far, Porch seems to be off to a strong start. My single, positive experience isn't enough to vouch for the entire network, but I'd try it again. That squeaky fan in my bedroom is really annoying.

Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.

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