Published on in RetailReshaping Business

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with and observe many of our incredible retail customers and partners across the nation.

Figuring out how process change and technology can help an organisation achieve their aspirations is something I am very familiar with from my previous roles in customer advocacy and client engagement.

However, since the start of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, we’ve all found ourselves far outside of our comfort zones.

The entire retail industry has been shaken to its core as a result of the significant shifts in buying habits caused by Covid-19.

And while much well-deserved attention has been placed on our front-line heroes, such as those keeping people alive in hospitals and care homes, I want to discuss another group of heroes who have stepped up this year – our retail workers.

In this blog post, I am going to detail some of the challenges the industry has had to contend with since this all began and share some of the extraordinary stories of innovation and unbridled will-power that is currently keeping us all fed.

An unprecedented challenge

Since rumours of a possible lockdown started back in mid-March, the retail industry has been on a rollercoaster ride.

On demand management, some global retailers have seen an increase of 74% in their online average transaction volume (according to ACI Worldwide), while others, especially those stores on the high street, have experienced a 34% reduction in like-for-like sales for the 5 weeks to end March, according to the BDO’s High Street Tracker.

Further complicating matters was the gargantuan logistical challenge of meeting the ballooning number of home delivery orders in a timely manner, especially when focussed on the neediest in society. Even Ocado, with all its trumpeted automation, had to concede that it wouldn’t be able to deliver to more than 250,000 homes per week.

And public attitudes and behaviours have changed over the weeks too – from panic buying at the outset causing severe stock shortage, to declining trust due to online capacity challenges. And even more worrying, we’ve seen a rise in verbal abuse of retail staff (62% of shopworkers in the last 34 days according to Usdaw).

This has been a challenge like none other, and very quickly businesses and the government realised that the only way through would be with cooperation from across the whole industry.

So, the UK government loosened trading rules to enable retailers to work more fluidly together, and the industry got to setting priorities.

There had to be a focus on the elderly and vulnerable. And measures were needed to ensure the health and wellbeing of customers and employees alike.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Freed of the usual constraints and motivated like never before, retailers and service providers of all stripes have partnered up and devised ingenious tactics and innovations to handle these challenges in a short amount of time.

There has been an incredible step up by big retailers, with stores like Waitrose and Tesco increasing home shopping slots by up to 30% a week. And Morrisons has pledged £10 million of food to restock foodbanks while also teaming up with Deliveroo to support with home deliveries.

Sainsbury’s has enabled grocery deliveries to the elderly and key workers through its rapid home delivery bike service, Chop Chop, which is now operating from ‘dark’ convenience stores.

Meanwhile, M&S and Aldi have launched food box programs online for vulnerable customers, with M&S also recognising employee commitment by raising the pay of its front-line staff.

Boots has nearly doubled its Pharmacy Delivery and Collection service in the last four weeks to help those self-isolating.

And when it comes to reducing the spread of the virus, retailers have been proactive. Practically every store has introduced marshals to remind customers to maintain the two metre social distancing rules, installed protective safety screens and extended the role of their in-store mobile scanning apps.

Other measures include raising the contactless spending limit and introducing greater contactless shopping.

There’re still some serious stock issues to resolve, especially in the household category where some essentials continue to be restricted by volume of purchase. Conversely, fashion retailers and their suppliers are now facing into huge seasonal clothing dilemmas.

But considering how hard and fast these market change dynamics came about, this management of supply has been hugely impressive.

Supporting the NHS

Retailers have also devised programs to help the NHS manage this outbreak.

Many restaurants and retailers have been helping keep key workers fed, with Morrisons launching NHS click and collect food boxes worth £30 twice a week from hospital car parks.

IKEA has been working with its suppliers to ramp up production of masks, hand sanitiser, visors and aprons, with the first batches already on their way to healthcare facilities.

Ocado has bought testing kits for staff and Amazon, Boots and others are supporting the testing drive, converting many of their core services to directly help the challenge.

There has been an incredible outpouring of volunteers, with programs like Asda’s Volunteer Shopping Card making it possible for people not constrained by the virus to help their community by shopping on behalf of those in isolation, without breaching social distancing measures.

A future changed

While retailers have had to make these alterations to their industry very quickly, many have cut to the very core of our society – the way we shop, the way we interact with each other and the way we use technology. So, I think many things about the sector will be different from here on in.

People are already getting used to new shopping modes for one.

What’s more, with some level of social distancing likely for the foreseeable future, we’re going to see a push in technology to enable permanent changes in operating models, processes and customer engagement.

At Fujitsu, as long-time champions of co-creation and collaboration, we’ve been busy sharing our expertise and technological knowledge with businesses.

We’ve been offering quantum-inspired technology to help retailers optimise their delivery efforts by up to 10-15%, and are helping many organisations with infrastructure challenges to enable more of their employees to work remotely and productively.

We’ve also worked with telecommunication companies to help increase front-line capacity, such as with the East of England Ambulance Service.

However, I want to end by expressing how grateful and in awe I am of the tremendous work all retail workers have done.

At short notice, there has been a huge commitment from them and suppliers across the end to end supply chain to keep stores and deliveries going through many different channels. There’re hundreds of examples of people putting themselves at risk for complete strangers, like you and me.

As well as the front-line health community, retail workers are among the unsung heroes of this pandemic – and each and everyone one of them deserves our gratitude and respect

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