20 May 2020, 11:42 AM
  • It took an unsettling trip to a DIY superstore to remind Ian Kelsall, customer experience director with insight6, that farm shops and food retailers are leading the way when it comes to customer experience and safety during Covid-19
Why all retailers should take inspiration from independents as lockdown is lifted

“An elephant’s memory is key to its survival in the wild. Equally, customers never forget a business that took care of them and supported them at a time when they needed it most, which is why great customer experience (CX) is key to business survival.

“Many food shops – big and small, national chains and independents - have faced significant challenges in the last two months. They have all stepped up to play a critical role in helping to keep the nation fed and helping the most vulnerable within our communities to get the everyday essentials that they need safely.

“Part of the challenge was the enormous and sudden upsurge in customer numbers and trade, resulting in pressure on customer management, ways of working, and supply chains. This all happened at a time when many business owners were anxious about the impact of the virus on their business, how they could keep their team, their families and themselves safe. The customer journey changed overnight and there was no time to think and plan a response - an instant on-the-hoof response was required.

“Food shops have been experiencing trade at a level they have never seen before. Many have done an amazing job for customers, implementing operational changes in the eye of the storm. Some smaller, more traditional, operators have been challenged to transition (‘pivot’ being the buzzword of the moment) from operating a purely bricks-and-mortar retail business to one that might now include clicks. Many independents and farm shops had to become “omnichannel” in a matter of days - serving the needs of customers is clearly the mother of invention.

“With no capacity or time to plan, many smaller business owners have innovated on their feet and created new ways of providing a socially-distanced shopping trip - from drive-thrus, instant call and collect services, click & collect next day and home delivery services.  All created in a matter of days and now the norm of how these businesses operate.

“With many businesses showing great tenacity, adaptability and innovation in the here and now, consideration must now be given to how sustainable these new ways of working are.  If there is an appetite for customers to continue to shop this way, why would you remove the facilities (assuming they can be operated profitably going forward)? My guess is that the new easy way of doing business has maintained the loyalty of the regulars as well as attracting new customers, assuming the experience delivers the same levels of customer satisfaction despite the operational complexity.

As other sectors now slowly ease themselves out of the lockdown, there is much to be learnt from the food retailers and how they have traded over recent weeks. I recently needed some DIY essentials to fix an untimely leak in the downstairs toilet. Probably using it as a good excuse to leave the confines of the house, I set out on a trip to buy the bits I needed to do the repair, and was immediately impressed with the organisation I saw as I entered the car park of the DIY retailer, only a couple of days after they had been given the green light to reopen. The entrance to the store was marshalled into the type of queuing system you see at theme parks, with clear indicators as to where you should stand to maintain the two-metre distance rule. The gentleman with a loudhailer informed us there was no point being there if we were looking for sand or large tins of fence paint as they had none. He then explained that all the staff in the store were not there to help - they were there to enforce social distancing - and we should not speak to them or ask them for any help or advice about products and availability. In normal circumstances, this type of instruction would have been horrific, but in these strange times it felt reassuring! The start of my customer journey with them was actually pretty good… I was impressed.

“The end of the journey was not bad either. There were clear yellow lines of tape defining where I was to stand while waiting to pay, and I knew I could not move forward until the yellow tape in front of me became free. There was a drop zone for me to place my goods into and a retreating area so I could stand back to enable the team member to come out from behind her perspex screen to scan my goods, and then she could retreat to enable me to pay. Brilliantly organised and brilliantly executed.

“The start of the customer journey, and the end of the customer journey, could not have been better.  But the bit in the middle was a completely different story - it was a free-for-all! Once in the building, people were free to go in whichever direction they wanted as there was no one-way system in the aisles. The well-stocked central aisle was busy with people stopping to browse the merchandise, passing to my right, to my left, in front of me. I could sense them encroaching on my two metre space behind too. I did not feel safe and instantly regretted my decision to go. There was no other way out other than through the tills, where organisation was resumed. Luckily, I found the items I needed quickly and breathed a sigh of relief to make it to the relative safety of a 20-person queue.

“Setting off on my way home, I wondered why they had got so much of the customer experience right, and so much of it wrong. Why did it feel so unsettling compared to my experience in food shops? I then realised that food shops had been doing this for much longer. They are operating the sixth or seventh iteration of their socially-distanced customer journeys, learning from experience and refining as they go to make it better. Food shops had been trading like this for several weeks, the DIY retailer for several hours.

“So, my advice to any business that is yet to emerge fully from the lockdown would be to look to the food shops for inspiration and guidance. Shamelessly steal their innovation and good ideas, as it might save you from making the same mistakes they have inevitably made and overcome. Food shops and food retailing continue to inspire others, not only with the critical job they are all doing at this moment in time, but for the application of processes and routines that make the sector a success, and food shops the safest places to shop.”

Ian Kelsall is a Customer Experience Director with insight6. Ian has extensive retail experience, having worked for some of Britain’s biggest high street names. He has recently been working with several smaller, independent businesses, along with closely collaborating with the Board and membership of the Farm Retail Association, supporting them through the recent trading challenges as Covid-19 changed the retail landscape. The Farm Retail Association has many coronavirus resources and webinars available, click here for more information.

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