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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
"When your customers are upside down in a cupboard under a sink,
they will use whatever channel they can get to reach you," he
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
Among other digital tools, these include mobile apps for
curbside-pickup services and real-time inventory-tracking
"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
Write to Angus Loten at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 25, 2021 16:44 ET (21:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.