ServiceLive.com lets shoppers name price for repairs

Sears Holdings shld is to announce a new online venture Friday, marrying Internet bidding with home construction and repair.

Aimed at matching homeowners with contractors, handymen and other in-home helpers who can do everything from install a flat-screen television to repair a leaky toilet, ServiceLive.com lets consumers name their price and set up a date for services while selecting from a list of prescreened contractors who get information blasted to them by e-mail and text message.

The first to respond snags the work, which is then rated and commented upon online.

"The very nature of this business is really fundamentally changing the way that services for homes are procured," says Carlos Fojo, divisional vice president of marketing and business development for ServiceLive. "The way to do it is providing the ultimate transparency about what people thought about the experience, what people are paying for things."

But the beta launch comes at one of the worst times for the nation's home improvement industry, as the recession continues to sap consumer's credit, putting many improvement projects beyond their reach. Meanwhile, home sales and construction continue to lag along with median sales prices.

Still, ServiceLive officials are banking that consumers will spend money on small projects — from repairs to installations — even when times are tight, to protect their investment in their home.

"In economic times like this, you don't want to let the little repairs in your home go by so they turn out into huge big expenses," said spokeswoman Kirsten Whipple. "A little leak right now could turn into being a huge ordeal when your ceiling falls in."

So far, the site has recruited an army of 9,000 vetted service providers across the country. Another 23,000 have registered and are at some stage of the website's approval process.

Homeowners looking for help will be provided with sample labor costs when they submit their price to help them gauge how much to offer. They'll also asked to submit as many details about the work as possible, even uploading photographs of the area where work will be done.

The fees must be paid up front and are held by ServiceLive until the work is completed. Then, homeowners can rate their contractor and provide feedback on the service they received, helping the next round of consumers pick who to target for future job requests.

ServiceLive charges a $10 fee to list a job and collects a 10% commission on any job that's performed.

Officials declined to say how much they've invested in the project or how much revenue they hope it will bring in, but plan to kick off their marketing campaign toward the end of the month.

But one place the website's advertisements won't be is inside Sears stores. That's because the company offers its own installation and service contracts for appliances bought in its stores.

Still, the initiative is the company's latest effort to resuscitate its falling revenue from its Sears and Kmart stores.

At an annual meeting last year, chairman Edward Lampert, who acquired Kmart in 2003 and Sears, Roebuck. in 2005, said the company will need to be innovative and change its business to adapt to customer's increasing desire to buy products on the Web.

Morningstar analyst Kim Picciola said ServiceLive, which will operate as a Sears Holdings subsidiary, seems to fit Lampert's strategy. But it may not be the home-run cash-generation machine the company desperately needs, especially as shoppers continue to cut their spending in retail stores.

"Certainly what they're doing right now is not working, but I think it's encouraging that they're trying some new things," she said. "That being said, I'm not convinced it's going to work out."

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