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With all but essential journeys for food, key worker roles or medical visits being put on stop, it is very clear that handling a major macro-economic shift is not a “contingency” rich area for most retail businesses.
After the initial hit, the manager’s view is obscured by clouds of capital and operational erosion and ever-increasing pressures to support and maintain the workforce. And that is before he / she must address the need for ongoing customer experience.
Unless these businesses are already supported by a digital and delivery-based offering, confidence within the enterprise will be edging towards an unprecedented low (if not there already).
Expected (or feared) consumer change
The nature of consumers’ digital spending has demonstrated a sharp change in priorities. In the main, these changes reflect common sense with both UK and US showing and logical shift away from non-essentials such as apparel (down by 15%) and luxury items.
In the UK (post-panic buying spell), last week alone has shown correlated increases in digital spending of over 20% for groceries, 25% for healthcare products and the tech consumables sector received a 15% boost supporting the national home working fit out.
Bear in mind that in early March, online retail was down over 11% on previous year as an across all categories.
Uncertainty and lack of clarity as to how consumer behaviour will evolve over the medium term is a further concern for retailers endeavouring to plan. Some businesses will be able to adapt to the transitions between “non-essential” and “essential” items far better than others.
Does it all boil down to an online and delivery capability?
From a pure retail perspective, the answer at present is yes…
It is virtually certain that businesses still able to trade through delivery are not primarily concerned with the competition right now. The focus is and must be customer fulfilment, together with a keen eye on supply chain.
If delivery and logistical services will maintain a position as a “key service” and are sustainable over the medium term, there is an opportunity here for retailers to focus on key customer areas:
- Provide better customer service and security
- Generate more order value for your customer
- Stimulate customer “lifetime” value
- How to adapt faster / better (ie. next time!)
If core category retailers (whether pure play or omni-channel) are the accidental beneficiaries of the current climate, then this is the time to re-appraise the digital offering and what underpins it. An obvious example here is the current consumer anxiety over virtual queues and lack of delivery slots.
Importantly, this process will also strengthen internal engagement across the enterprise and yield positive results as the UK moves out of the crisis period.
The best ideas often come from those at the coal face who see the problems as they happen. Your workforce and suppliers must be treated as customers too... and now is the time to start listening!
The “brand effect”
Through discussions with several regional businesses over the past 5 days (online I should make clear!), it is without doubt that brand equity is proving to deliver a strong calming effect even when core business disruption is unavoidable.
An East Anglian specialist coffee roastery who’s core retail customer base is underpinned by town / city market square presence, has experienced a 400% increase in online orders in March (compared to February). For a business who’s daily trade was 90% footfall driven, this is a clear indicator that they have done something very right!
This is not organic growth, “new customer” purchases remain on the same curve. This is existing customers (including yours truly) who are engaged with the brand.
And this growth ticks the correct boxes: Average Order Value (AOV) is up, frequency can be measured, and the business is in a position to plan throughput and future stock levels.
The most interesting point of validation here was when customers were unable to choose their “preferred” varietal (I have learnt that this is the term used when talking about coffee beans 😊), they did not abandon their purchase. They either requested a recommendation from the owners or simply selected the “house” varietal at the same quantity.
In terms of brand equity, very impressive. Looking back at the questions in the previous section, this business has not started asking them now… it has been asking them from day one.
Pivot (adapt your business model) if you can!
A Southern UK food distributor with accounts across the restaurant and hotel sector, identified the approaching drop-off in customer orders during early March. Turnover aside, both fresh / frozen stock would fast become a serious issue.
Recognising the consumer problems illustrated by the recent panic buying, the business decided to shift from B2B to a B2B + B2C operation over a single weekend. The team put together a new consumer offering of fixed price “blitz boxes”. Each box containing a choice of essential meats, fish and dairy items.
With all items available to order online for next day home delivery, a simple PR campaign including a local radio mention has yielded significant returns and enabled the business to rationalise operations. Whilst supply chain management remains critical over the medium term, at present, the additional security generated with staff is palpable.
What about the big boys?
Why don’t the supermarkets deliver pre-packaged essential goods in a box? A few of us industry spectators have been asking this question for weeks.
At time of writing, Morrisons has just announced their new essential food box delivery service. £30 worth of items depending (a vegetarian or meat choice is available) delivered by an alternative courier service for £5, in this case DPD.
Secret Manchester (part of the Secret Media Network) summed it up as…
“Morrisons has introduced a new way of getting food to their customers, and it’s an absolute lifesaver”
So, looks like brownie points for the brand AND a well-executed pivot in terms of offering. Business and customer centric thinking in concert!
Unfortunately, the delivery slot availability AND virtual queues continues to be a core problem for Morrisons online (they are not alone of course). Some of those earlier questions remained unresolved alas.
Naked Wines, who are very much at the forefront of digital best practice, have taken the decision to restrict sales to a range of pre-packaged selection cases.
At first glance, this may appear detrimental in terms of customer offering, but there is some strong intelligence behind this...
- Warehousing - to - goods out is streamlined
- Next day delivery remains robust
- Staff health and wellbeing is improved
- The consumer messaging is very clear – this company cares for its team and suppliers first and foremost
And there is the double whammy. Customers who purchase a pre-packaged selection case will most likely experience 6 wines previously untried. The customer experience is enhanced further with a new product experience.
To coin a sports term, this is a trading “lay-up” and represents solid business thinking in a difficult situation. Safeguards first, assure the customer and then apply eCommerce 101… expose and deliver more of the catalogue.
It is still the customer that drives Commerce
The 2 SMBs above, (unlike both Morrisons and Naked Wines), are not eCommerce or digital heavyweights. Far from it. They each run a basic eCommerce site, integrated Point of Sale (POS) and accounts system with supporting inventory and CRM. The coffee specialist also has a customer loyalty programme built in.
While the food distributor made customer facing changes to their online offering… it was literally a call to their web development agency to turn on the eCommerce module!
Each SMB has now increased active engagement via email, and all are running A/B tests on customer response. This is not heavyweight online activity considering the current state of the retail market.
The success here has been driven entirely by groundwork at the brand level, the customer level… and that business’ ability to react fast AND solve a real customer problem. In particular, the latter is difficult to achieve, whether it is the perceived risk, perceived work or simply fear of change.
In the case of Morrisons, I would imagine that they wished to have had their food box offering out much faster. But at enterprise scale, these adaptations take more time. Nevertheless, it is an impressive effort… if they can just get the virtual queues down!
Just look at those four questions again. When the market moves to happier times, will you have those answers that your business needs? As we mentioned at the start of this piece, if there's any support that you need, please request a call back.
Alternatively, if you'd like to see how the recent crisis has impacted commerce, click the button below. We conducted a consumer survey to discover how online buying behaviours have changed in the wake of COVID-19 and fashioned up the key stats into a digestible graphic.
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