How In-House App Development Gave Home Depot Associates the Right Tool for Their Jobs

The associate experience is a top-of-mind topic for today’s retailers. The frontline is the part of your team that customers interact with the most, so enabling them to handle their jobs in an enjoyable and efficient manner pays off by helping them create great experiences. The Home Depot is achieving these goals through Sidekick, an in-house mobile app designed to empower associates to make the most of their time.

Sidekick lives on Home Depot’s hdPhones, which were developed in collaboration with Zebra Technologies, HPE and Aruba. The baseline hdPhones offer capabilities such as long-range product scanning, which spares associates the trouble of scaling eight-foot shelves to search for products, and advanced communication tools that help associates stay in touch throughout the store.

The Sidekick app builds on the capabilities of those devices with a machine learning and machine vision-powered solution that “empowers associates to focus on their highest-value tasks that drive sales and drive customer service,” according to Muzammil Akram, VP for Store Technology at Home Depot in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. The result is a more satisfying, efficient workday for associates, one that matches their tasks to the unique traffic patterns of their store and maximizes the time they can spend on customer service.

“We worked with our business partners to find ways to enrich people, processes and technology, whether customers are shopping online or when they come to the store,” said Akram. “In order to provide the best customer service available in-store, an associate needs to be available. So we have to give them the time to engage with the customer.”


Internal Developers Can ‘Put on the Hat’ of Store Associates

Expectations for an associate can vary greatly from retailer to retailer, so Home Depot has tailored Sidekick’s capabilities to its unique needs by developing the app in-house. This ensures that the most important stakeholders in the app’s development — the workers who will be using it daily —are directly involved in its creation.

“It’s our belief that in order to develop and provide a delightful experience to a user, and to help them resolve their problems, you have to be user-centric in your approach,” said Akram. “If you don’t have the answers they want, you have to have the flexibility to iterate using shorter feedback loops. Over the years, we’ve built a wonderful world-class organization of software engineers, designers, data scientists and product managers. They spend time in stores. They put on the hat of a store associate so they can understand pain points and opportunities and really build that empathy, and then when they develop the solution the end user is always engaged in the process.”

Akram added that the feedback loop in question involves reacting quickly and addressing anything that might be missed between design phases, which requires a close partnership between the user and the developer. “For those reasons, we believe it is far more efficient and speedy for us to build those experiences,” he said. “We know our business, we know our users and it as much easier for us to do.”

Good Apps Create a Better Customer Experience

Associates aren’t the only Home Depot employees benefiting from Sidekick. The app also is designed to help store managers get a better view of operations and interface with other software used by Home Depot to further boost efficiency.

“The benefit for [managers] is visibility into the state of the shelves, stocking levels and the completeness and efficiency of the tasks that are being performed,” said Akram. “If they’re walking down the aisle and they see a product is out of stock, they can create a task right there. It gives them that flexibility — we don’t want this to be a robotic process. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and thriving and we want to make sure this is a tool that helps them, not a tool that micromanages.”

Customers will benefit from improved stocking as well. “We always say that customer service starts with product availability — if it’s not available and accessible, you’ve already lost,” said Akram.

The needs of the customer will continue to direct the development of Sidekick and other apps as Home Depot perfects the technology. As of mid-January 2023, Home Depot had introduced 99,000 hdPhones across all its U.S. stores and installed Sidekick at more than 600 stores, with plans to expand deployment to all U.S. locations in early 2023.

“I think this is just the beginning,” said Akram. “Our business evolves rapidly and our customers continue to shop in new ways. That means that we have to stay one step ahead of where the customer is and understand the tools that our associates need. We will continue to iterate and build. There is a whole explosion of data available, new computing options that are available, more proliferation of IoT — all of those create a whole set of new opportunities that we plan to use to enhance these capabilities.”

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