RSi COVID-19 Insights from Around the Globe – UK
Gordon Morrin, Senior Director of Customer Success / Global Ecommerce & Omnichannel Leader, Retail Solutions, UK Retail Update – April 6
My Last Business Trip: Sensing Something Big Was About to Happen
It was Monday, the 9th of March and I was at Heathrow Airport checking in for a 3-day visit to Washington DC. The airport was quieter than usual, and the obvious backdrop of the Coronavirus pandemic hummed throughout the terminals as press coverage was steadily increasing. However, it was “business as usual” (apart from having to ‘elbow bump’ my colleagues as opposed to our traditional handshake) until informed otherwise by our local governments and executive teams.
Roll on to Wednesday, the 11th of March, sitting in our very quiet hotel bar we watched Donald Trump announce his measures to ban Europeans from travelling to the US in a bid to contain the coronavirus. The cherry on top – the NBA announced they were suspending their season. Things were really starting to build and life, it appeared, was going to change for the foreseeable future. My colleague and I looked at each other and said, “just get us home.”
The very next day we were on a flight from Washington DC to New York with only 7 passengers. Our connecting flight to the UK – 50% empty. This was when the gravity of the situation really hit home. The inevitable lockdowns weren’t far away and, just a few days later on the 16th, the UK’s government started getting serious.
Fear and The Inevitable “Panic Buy“
Having never experienced anything like this before, I could sense the build-up of fear and panic gaining momentum. Everywhere I looked, everything I read, all the news coverage was Coranavirus related. Thinking of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, fulfilling the physiological and safety needs were a necessity. Time to stock up on meds, packaged food, toilet paper and MASKS & GLOVES (like the majority of every nation!). The latter items seemed to be deemed ‘the must have’ for staying safe when venturing out of the house. Would they make a difference, apart from making me looking stupid? Only time would tell. Safety first, right?
On reflection, I think most of the UK experienced “irrational” shopper behavior in the build up to this event. Simply put, it was CRAZY; but, we’re humans, everyone is different, and there are no protocols on what to do or how to behave here. I’ve worked for some of the biggest brands in the world, and all of the category and shopper marketing theories learnt in the past truly went out the window. Shoppers stripped supermarkets bare of toilet paper, pasta, snacks, tinned food, frozen food, paracetamol, and, of course, hand soap and sanitizer. One of the largest Tesco grocery stores in the UK is not far from my home, and it was carnage (see pictures of the Toilet Paper and Canned Tomato aisle for reference).
These scenes were re-created across the world and even online grocery shopping didn’t escape the panic. Around 7% of total UK grocery sales are online. Following the surge in demand came the crash of Ocado’s website (a Grocery Pure Player) and brick-and-mortar grocers (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury, etc.) filled their available capacity, leading to huge waiting times for slots of up to 4-6 weeks! On top of that, having worked in Ecommerce for over 10 years, my thoughts were:
- Hang on, online is going to surge (the inevitable tipping point?); however,
- What’s the shopper experience going to be like if people can’t get what they want, resulting in substitutions or failed fulfillment? Five shopping experiences create the habit but a single poor experience can lose a shopper.
It’ll be interesting to see what balance is struck in our new reality after this forced experiment. Personally, I believe when this is over, and it will be, online grocery participation will significantly increase as more shoppers stay away from large crowds and enjoy the convenience.
Life in Lockdown
It’s now Monday, the 6th of April and it’s been 3 weeks of adjusting to this new way of living. As it stands today government advice to us is:
- Stay (and work) at home, protect lives, protect the NHS (National Health Service)
- Only leave the house for grocery shopping, essential trips or once daily exercise
- Stay as a family unit and do not mix with others outside your unit. If out for essentials, stay 2 metres apart from others
How Does It Feel? Very Strange!
Going for a walk
- You can’t walk anywhere without being mindful of not getting close to one another. Even yesterday, a walk around the block involved crossing the road multiple times not to walk past someone in-case they sneezed!
Grocery store restrictions
- There are some limitations on hours now, for good reason, giving the elderly and key workers (NHS) preferential hours to browse. You must queue to get into a store (2 metres apart) whilst they limit the number of shoppers to give everyone personal space in store.
- Essential items are restricted in some stores, so demand hasn’t gotten completely back to normal and other categories such as Pasta, Canned Foods, and Eggs are taking time to replenish.
- Gyms and leisure complexes are shut. All sport is off. Pubs and beauty salons are shut. Restaurants are restricted to take out only or shut completely, and if you’re in need of a haircut – tough luck! Barbers and hair salons are shut too. I see a rise in ‘do it yourself’ haircuts coming soon (can’t wait to see those works of art during various video conferences)!
- Every Thursday the people of the nation gather at doorsteps, windows, and gardens to clap for our ‘front line’ and it’s fully deserved given the work that they’re doing and risk that they’re taking. I hope after this event they receive the financial recognition they deserve as well.
What I’ve Learned from This Experience
- The power of technology enables us to stay connected, be productive and challenge the status quo.
- Video conferencing empowers us to stay connected whilst being physically separated from family, friends and colleagues. Zoom/Facetime has been a godsend!
- Working from home has really challenged the notion of having to be office-based. I get it for some roles (not one size fits all), however, people really are adapting and there are huge positives. We have less travel time, more productive work time and cameras are always on – keeping us connected. Will this change ‘office’ culture for good, meaning less need for huge offices, more flexible working and give a little back to our planet?
- Social gatherings can still be enjoyable even if done from separate locations. With no pubs, clubs or restaurants open and people not being able to physically meet, the ‘Virtual Pub’ (aka the Zoom meeting/video conferencing) has become an excellent alternative. It has provided us the ability to stay connected with friends and family, and even the opportunity to re-connect with old friends whilst having downtime.
- Digital workout classes readily available are encouraging everyone to get up off their couches once in a while. For example, Joe Wickes, ‘The World’s PE teacher,’ has become a YouTube phenomenon as he provides workouts every weekday at 9AM. If you haven’t seen him, I suggest you check it out as he’s doing a lot of good for the mental and physical health of people of all ages.
- The tipping point for Ecommerce. I’ve worked in Ecommerce for nearly half of my working life and I am always asked, “When is the tipping point for grocery? Will stores die? and is it incremental?” My final thoughts on this are:
- The tipping point will accelerate and the only thing holding Ecommerce back will be capacity constraints – so expect to see a ramp up in delivery and fulfillment options.
- Stores won’t die, they will simply have to adapt and become more experiential, places to browse before purchase (on or offline), meet friends, sample products etc.
- Shoppers are switching the way they shop from physical stores to a mix of physical and virtual, but is it incremental? I’ve seen and been part of many studies that suggest omnichannel shoppers are more valuable than offline shoppers. So, my view to businesses out there is you simply have to play here. As more and more shoppers migrate online, it’s critical to understand and monitor this area more than ever or risk seeing sales drop and becoming irrelevant.