Cautiously, Lowe's chief looks ahead

What's it going to take for a robust recovery in the home improvement industry? According to Lowe's CEO Robert Nibllock, two things -- home prices must bottom and the job market must improve. When is that likely to happen? Next year, "in all likelihood," he said.

Niblock made his remarks at the recent Jefferies & Co. Global Consumer Conference in Nantucket, Mass., where he told investors that the company is beginning to see some encouraging signs. Not only did the first quarter present the first positive comp-store number in 15 quarters, he also pointed out that 21 of the company's 23 regions had positive comps. Gulf coast regions facing difficult comparisons with quarters bolstered by hurricane-related spending were the only exceptions, he said.

The second quarter of 2010, however, won't have the twin benefits of Cash for Appliances program or the Homebuyer Tax Credit, which expired April 30. And one other thing: the first quarter had ideal weather for home improvement retailing.

 

"We still think that there's some headwinds out there that make us cautiously optimistic as we look over the balance of the year. Particularly, we think consumers are closely monitoring housing value trends, as well as the employment landscape," Niblock said.

 

Niblock and his team have studying consumer patterns very carefully in this year of transition, and the overall picture looks better than last year.  "We think overall, as we look out into the future, consumers are less cautious than they were previously for the U.S. economic outlook," he said. "I think they believe that the worst of the financial crisis and the impact of the recession that we've been through is behind them, but they still know that we're not out of the woods yet."

 

Cost containment will play a major role in the success of the company during the transition year -- and the company's new (rolled out in the third quarter) Facilities Servie Associate (FSA) positions are designed to provide an in-house alternative to outsourced facility management. "We decided that by hiring our own dedicated person, doing ti in-house versus outsourcing it on a contract basis, we could get better executing, quicker response to issues that take place and ultimately a lower cost."

Next year, the company intends to reap benefits from what it calls its Integrated Planning and Execution (IP&E) -- enhanced product assortment and replenishment systems -- "to make sure that we improve our local assortments and make very sure that we have the right product in the right market at the right time."