Home improvement stores, destinations for the do-it-yourself consumer, have long sold the hammers, nails and tools people need to fix up their houses.
Now large chains such as Home Depot and Lowe's are selling virtual tools -- sensors, Wi-Fi enabled appliances and software -- to help those customers monitor and control their homes from their smartphones.
It's an attempt to tap into the Internet of Things -- technologists' term for a network of connected sensors, devices and objects. In its early stages, the Internet of Things attracted tech companies such as Nest, the connected-thermostat manufacturer bought by Google in January for $3.2 billion, and SmartThings, a Washington, D.C.-based startup selling home automation kits.
Now established retailers are joining the trend. Since early July, Home Depot has been selling about 60 products -- including window blinds, water heaters, light bulbs and security cameras -- that customers can adjust or turn on and off through a smartphone app called Wink. (Wink was developed by Quirky, a New York-based tech startup that sells other home automation products such as the EggMinder, which notifies owners when eggs go bad.)
"What's neat about this [system] is the creativity," Jeff Epstein, Home Depot's merchandising vice president, said in an interview. "The needs of each individual allows them to piecemeal the system, however they would like.'
For the past couple of years, Lowe's has been developing and selling Iris, a software similar to Wink that lets customers manage their devices. Lowe's initially began just selling the devices, but "the problem for consumers was they were getting confused by different offerings and what they could do ... We believe customers needed one single app and one single user interface," Kevin Meagher, head of the Smart Home division of Lowe's, said in an interview.
Lowe's created its home automation business unit in 2011 to develop Iris and other products for the connected home, Meagher said.
Lowe's customers can access Iris for free when they buy a smart device from Lowe's, allowing them to turn it on and off from their smartphones.
For a $10 monthly fee, users can perform more sophisticated tasks, such as scheduling lights to turn on and off while the resident is on vacation.
These higher-tech offerings might be attracting new customers to home improvement stores.
Before he started using Iris, Queens resident Hsi-Pei Liao said he rarely shopped at Home Depot or Lowe's. But after his home was robbed in April 2013 -- burglars made off with his flat-panel television -- Liao began installing motion sensors and cameras throughout his three-bedroom house. In the case of an intruder, the sensors will send a text, email and call to Liao's smartphone, though he noted that sometimes a gust of wind can set them off. He can also check cameras from his phone.
Liao has gradually been adding more connected devices -- smoke detectors, water sensors in his basement to detect floods, and power switches. When he goes out, he uses Iris to switch off electronics such as his laser printer, speakers and monitors to conserve energy.
The data Iris collects about how people use the devices could be valuable, Meagher said. Lowe's has a partnership with State Farm, giving its customers an insurance discount if they agree to share their Iris usage data.
"We believe customers with intelligent homes are a much lower insurance risk than customers with nothing," he said.
Still, Meagher said, some loyal Lowe's customers are wary of connected devices, especially if they don't understand the underlying technology.
"Our job is to explain to them what we are doing," he said. "We also make it perfectly clear to customers -- nobody does anything with the data."