As outbreak spreads beyond big cities, Lowe’s looks to help rural small businesses and serve customers in new ways

Lowe’s customers wear masks as they load building supplies into their truck during the coronavirus pandemic in New York.

Mark Lennihan | AP

Lowe’s CEO Marvin Ellison said the retailer had unique advantages that helped it weather the pandemic in the early months: More stores in rural areas and a large base of do-it-yourself customers.

As the pandemic stretches on and the coronavirus outbreak spreads beyond big cities, however, the home improvement retailer said it’s seen the struggles of small businesses in rural areas. It’s looked for new ways to serve and market to customers in a time of social distancing.

On Thursday, Lowe’s announced two initiatives aimed to do that. The company pledged $25 million towards grants for small businesses in rural communities, including some home professionals and contractors that shop at its stores. It will also turn a few of its parking lots into drive-in movie theaters, an idea that may expand to more locations.

Lowe’s chief brand and marketing officer Marisa Thalberg, said like with minority-owned and women-owned businesses, rural businesses face certain challenges like limited access to capital and fewer nearby services.

“As we started recognizing where the [pandemic] impact was being felt, we just felt that there wasn’t enough conversation around the impact in rural America,” she said.

For the home improvement retailer, the pandemic struck at a time when it’s trying to reboot its image, overhaul its website and ramp up its business among home professionals. Those efforts have become more complicated during a pandemic — yet Lowe’s has seized upon the chance to introduce itself to new customers and woo back former ones as it remained open as an essential business. 

Lowe’s added curbside pickup to all of its stores. It launched a free video tool for virtual home visits in June to try to entice more plumbers, electricians and other home professionals to join its loyalty program. And it stepped up philanthropic efforts, including a previous $25 million commitment towards grants for minority-owned and women-owned businesses. It’s now adding $5 million to that fund, bringing its total small business grant program to $55 million.

Retail was the largest sector to receive the first round of business grants, followed by construction and other services, such as barber shops, nail salons and dry cleaners, company spokeswoman Amy Allison said. She said the businesses covered a wide range from grocery stores and car dealers to plumbers and painters. Each business receives up to $20,000.

Lowe’s surprised Wall Street analysts in May when its first quarter earnings beat expectations for earnings and revenue. Ellison said at the time that the retailer had been buoyed by a few factors. About 25% of its stores are in rural areas that weren’t as hard-hit as bigger cities in the early months of the pandemic. About 20% to 25% of its sales come from pros — less than Home Depot‘s 45%. And Ellison said many of its professional customers are “pickup truck pros” who operate small businesses that haven’t been hurt as badly as some of the major companies.

Lowe’s shares hit a 52-week high of $142.34 on Wednesday. Its shares are up about 18% so far this year.

She said the retailer is getting creative to reach customers. It will host the drive-in movie screening for families at a store parking lot in Charlotte, North Carolina this weekend. It will have a similar event in early August at a store in Cornelia, a small town in Georgia.

The movies will be free, but Lowe’s will accept donations to support relief efforts for local small business with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national nonprofit that’s helping Lowe’s distribute its business grants. The retailer will match the donations two-to-one up to $50,000.

Stores will be closed during the event, but each car of moviegoers will get freebies that may help keep the retailer top-of-mind when they drive away: a Lowe’s movie bucket with masks, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, bottled water and snacks.

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