Executive Editor

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional Remodelersalfano@sgcmail.com, 202.365.9070

The Next Uber

For books it was Amazon; for music, iTunes; for taxi services, Uber. Whatever will disrupt the remodeling industry is probably already underway.

September 24, 2016
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In early 1992, I visited California to report on rebuilding efforts after the Oakland Hills fire, which destroyed more than 2,800 single-family homes. While there, I visited my brother, David, at NASA’s Ames Research Center in nearby Mountain View in the heart of Silicon Valley. He was anxious to show me a new technology he was using, so we spent about an hour sitting together at a computer terminal while he used something called the “World Wide Web” to find and display images of sheet music. The process was excruciatingly slow—I think we downloaded two documents and one photo in all that time—so slow that I concluded that this newfangled digital technology would never catch on. 

When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But I was not alone. Bookstore closings were the canary in the coal mine. When Amazon.com went online in 1995, few bookstore owners took it seriously. After all, shipping heavy books was expensive, Amazon’s online ordering process was clunky and slow, and most people were wary of giving out their credit card information. Bookstores were sure it would never catch on. Not long after, record stores were completely upended by Apple’s iPod and iTunes service. 

More recently, the Staples store a few blocks from my house closed. I don’t know the reasons, but I’m betting one of them is that people in D.C. can get everything Staples sells from Amazon without leaving the house and have it delivered the same day. Twenty years ago the “last mile” problem was touted as the one obstacle that online retailers would never overcome. Then came free shipping. But look out FedEx—the next step is delivery by drone. Or maybe we’ll see delivery by self-driving car. It seemed fanciful five years ago when Google started working on it; today Uber is testing selfdriving cars in Pittsburgh.

Bookstores never saw Amazon coming. The music industry was blindsided by iTunes. And cabbies are reeling as Uber lures away their market. Whatever will disrupt the remodeling industry is probably already underway. 

Surprise! You’ve Been Uberized!

In fact, this kind of industry disruption is so strongly identified with Uber’s app-based ride service that we now hear it described as “uberification.” I prefer the simpler term “uberization,” but the meaning is the same: the rapid, unanticipated reversal of fortunes of a business or industry at the hands of a digital competitor. 

The terms “rapid” and “unanticipated” are important here because when you are uberized, it happens fast and you don’t see it coming. The taxi industry is reeling, but despite its lawsuits, Uber continues to gain acceptance. Recently, for example, upon arriving via Amtrak in Philadelphia for our Extreme Sales Summit, I discovered that Uber drivers have designated parking spaces on the 30th Street side of the train station; taxis are prohibited there and must use the 29th Street entrance. 

What Will Uberize the Remodeling Industry?

Three panelists at the Extreme Sales Summit were asked if they thought that remodeling could ever be sold online without an in-person meeting. They all said No. (Hell, no, actually.) What they didn’t know is that for two years, at least one exterior replacement company has been beta testing a process that does exactly that. In 2015, they used it to close $2 million in sales. 

Siding or windows maybe, you say, but never fullservice remodeling. Maybe not yet, but sites such as ibby.com already walk consumers through design, specification, and product selection for a pull-andreplace bathroom remodel—completely online. 

Whether it’s virtual reality, Amazon Home Services, Houzz.com, a revitalized Angie’s List, or an unknown startup, disruption is coming and it’s coming fast.

But it is no longer unanticipated.

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