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Lessons from the field amid the spread of the coronavirus

All over the world fresh food, grocery, drug retailers and their suppliers are working tirelessly to support their Customers and their communities to provide essential services as the coronavirus pandemic impacts everyone's daily lives.

We are in a time of unprecedented challenges for these retailers, their employees and their Customers. But even in these uncertain times, it has been heartening to see so many of these businesses put the Customer first and meet their most important needs, by listening to and caring for them, and adjusting their strategy and operational execution immediately – be it opening hours, services, pricing, product assortment or store experience. But in this time of crisis, it has also been crucial that retailers focus on those serving on the front lines of Customer engagement: the store and distribution colleagues. By recognising their contribution and making their lives simpler and easier, they can help them continue to serve Customers every day.

Alongside our local teams supporting many retailers and suppliers directly, by analysing changes in Customer behaviour and using data to help make decisions, we are also assessing learnings and sharing retailer responses from across our global network where retailers are at different stages of the pandemic, and some locations where social distancing has been in place many weeks.

Here are some of the learnings and highlights of responses in food retail we are seeing so far:

Learnings from China

The Chinese government implemented many practices in January and early February to control the coronavirus (during sales peak season of Chinese New Year, already a huge challenge to retailers) – extending the national holiday, suspending school and entertainment, limiting transportation, and reducing human contact with strict community-management measures.

Customer behaviour has changed over this period as more time was spent in the home and as we look at the pre vs post isolation period we are seeing a number of things:

  • Customer spend is up across all customer segments as supermarkets take on the role of "take home" services with restaurants, coffee shops, and quick service restaurants being closed. There has also been a move away from traditional wet markets to more hygienic modern trade.
  • Customer spend per visit has grown significantly whilst frequency of visits is overall much lower.
  • Many new customers or infrequent customers have reassessed their local stores, with small supermarkets seeing the highest rise in sales and visits as a result of customers shopping in their nearest store.
  • There has been a significant increase in online grocery especially in fresh food – ten times the average in sales before the outbreak. This has been driven not just by consumer demand, but the wider distribution of stores offering home delivery.
  • Consumption patterns in several categories have been changing, including:
    • Daily-meal related categories and instant food showing greater importance and strong growth as consumers chose to cook more at home and stock up on food.
    • Significant increases in personal hygiene and household cleaning as customers became much more health conscious
    • Chinese white wine, nut, and gifted products, saw much lower demand, often popular during Chinese New Year, as most consumers cancelled family gatherings.

Implications for other retailers

There's much to learn from the data coming from China and other impacted regions. And while it is too early to fully quantify impact and trends, we do have early indications of the massive consumer changes underway.

First, Customers have prepared themselves for lockdowns by stocking staples, baby and pet care. Fear-hoarding is going hand-in-hand with urgent shopping of basic hygiene products. Much of this short-term, "long-life" pantry loading will likely see a significant lag in future consumption sales, such as medicines, household, and canned food.

Second, Customers are doing fewer trips as "social distancing" and quarantine restrictions change habits and encourage nearby shopping. In doing so, consumers are trading up to larger packs, and more "full shop" missions not always typical in those smaller local formats. Sales per visit is increasing by up to 20% in these stores.

Third, Customers are shopping more online. Most grocers are reporting record sales through ecommerce, causing some retailers to scramble to keep their websites up, maintain inventories in line with their orders, and fulfil the demand for delivery and pick-up. Interestingly, we've found that fresh food is no longer reliant on offline retail, which could cause a breakthrough point for ecommerce expansion. As consumers' online shopping behaviour becomes more developed, with convenience and quick service as advantages, we expect online basket size and full grocery shops to help drive this channel expansion further even after the pandemic subsides.

Fourth, Customers are also adopting healthy living by being more conscious about personal hygiene and household cleaning. Though there are regional variations, prevention through improving hygiene practices is seen across the globe.

None of these challenges are trivial. It puts pressure on retailers to act immediately, with both clear strategies for Customer adaptation and operational agility. That said, to varying degrees of commitment, the world's top retailers are adopting three principles:

  • The paradox of "Customer First": especially in times of crisis, it's all about is putting the employee first. Recognise and reward your store teams for their super-human responses in the face of crisis. Review attendance and sick-pay policies.
  • A better way of embracing Customer loyalty. Understand that employees are the best loyalty-building team. They are members of the community, reflecting the values of their neighbours, speaking for their friends and families, and serving as the voice of your company back to the community. In the U.S. and other regions where the coronavirus is prevalent, they are also seen as belonging to one of two professions that are deemed as "essential" (the other is healthcare). Retailers must think about growing employee loyalty to grow Customer loyalty. Winning Customer loyalty begins with helpful, well-trained, and motivated employees. Your Customers are watching.
  • More than ever, it's about the retail basics, and serving and protecting your local community. Getting back to a solid basic level of service and dealing with demand is paramount for everyone who has just faced severe panic buying. Stock shelves with the most important items, continuity of supply is all that matters. Hard decisions need to be made to peel back the shopping experience to the most simple offer, to enable staff to get the basics done. This means trade-offs, with a long list of activities to be paused in store to make employees lives easier and get to a good basic service level.

Retailers who do this rapidly and best will help their communities though these difficult times and win trust with the most Customers, today and in the ever-uncertain future.

[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at].

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It's a well-worn phrase by now, but it's true that the COVID-19 crisis has drastically altered the global retail landscape. Here in the Asia-Pacific region, a majority of markets are now looking past the panic of the first wave and towards the future. In this series of articles, we'll explore how grocery retailers must adapt to a more omnichannel reality to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

The new wave of online grocery customers

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis we've seen the sharp rise and fall of many trends. As countries veered from one phase of the pandemic to the next, we've seen everything from panic-buying and stockpiling, to a booming demand for hygiene products. While some of these trends have stuck, the resumption of a more 'normal' life in many parts of the Asia-Pacific have seen others tail off.

One trend which is set to stay is in eCommerce, particularly within grocery. Lockdown drove a surge to online grocers the likes of which we have never seen – and it seems customers have been convinced by the online experience. According to multiple recent studies[1] China's grocery eCommerce market, already a booming sector with 29% growth last year, is now tipped to grow by 60% this year as the coronavirus has driven whole new segments of customers to the online grocery market. The trend is also sustaining; the main growth driver in's record-breaking '618' event this year was grocery, with sales almost doubling[2].

While general retail has been building momentum online for some years, grocery has been something of a laggard, rarely accounting for more than 15% of the overall grocery market. Historically the major barrier to entry to online grocery has been trust – over 50% of customers do not trust online grocery deliveries to pick the freshest and best items[3]. For years this has been a catch-22 scenario for retailers: customers don't trust the quality of online grocery because they haven't tried it, but they won't try online grocery because they don't trust the quality.

COVID-19 has caused a new wave of customers to finally take a leap of faith into digital grocery. Retailers can be happy that they've won new customers online, but now comes the hard work of retaining them.

The need for Customer Infrastructure

Much has been made of retailers' attempts to keep up with surging online demand during the early phases of the pandemic. Even in globally advanced eCommerce markets like the UK, the lead retailer has had to significantly expand delivery capacity to keep up with demand[4]. In order to meet the needs of new customers, retailers have rightly focused on having the right physical infrastructure in place.

However, if retailers want to keep meeting the needs of customers, they'll now need to focus on a different kind of infrastructure - the online customer experience.

The ease of shopping online is a double-edged sword for retailers. If customers can shop online with one retailer, they can shop online with any retailer. Your competitor store is no longer 1 kilometre away, it is one click away. Customers can literally browse competitor shop windows while they are in your store, and for countless retailers in the Asia-Pac region where online sales have historically been low, their digital stores may be looking rather outdated.

So while you may have won new customers, the fight to keep them is much more challenging.

Getting the digital experience right

The principles of great customer experience online are the same as instore. It's about helping customers easily find what they want. It's about helping customers feel they've got a good deal. It's about having a well-laid out store. Fundamentally, a great digital experience is about putting customers first and responding to their needs. Thankfully, the nature of eCommerce makes it possible to know these needs in detail through the wealth of data available to retailers. The data you're likely already collecting will tell you everything required to build a better overall and individual shopping experience for each customer who shops online.

Here are 3 ways retailers can act now to build a winning customer experience online:

  1. Bring the offline online
    Your customers may be new online, but many of them will be existing offline shoppers. Their loyalty card history enables you to show them items they already buy. Better still, predictive data science can detect which of those items are staple and regular purchases that each customer might need right now – helping them quickly and efficiently build a basket based on their own personal behaviour. This knowledge can also help act as an online virtual assistant, helping customers find substitutes for out of stock products and prompting them with items they may have forgotten to add at the checkout.
  2. Make it easy to find value
    In a world where customers can price compare at the flick of a tab, maintaining price perception is vital. This is easier said than done online, as customers won't spend time browsing the 500 products you have on special that week. Instead, use relevancy algorithms to curate your promotions list at the customer level using their previous behaviour, and show each customer the offers that actually matter to them.
  3. Optimise the navigation
    Newer online customers tend to use online search and taxonomy functions much more than experienced online shoppers. If your online category flow is unclear, difficult to interpret or poorly arranged, shoppers will have a harder and more frustrating experience. Equally, if their searches lead to incorrect or blank results, customers will quickly lose patience. Site analytics data in the hands of an expert is a goldmine for optimising the online navigation – from naming and arranging categories in a strong taxonomy to eliminating poor-performing searches.

Retailers in Asia have a limited window of time to win the continued business of new online customers. As these customers become more familiar with the experience, the greater will be their demands and their likelihood to look elsewhere when their experience is sub-optimal.

At dunnhumby, we've been advising grocery retailers on digital best practise for over 10 years, led by 30+ years of leading experience in data science and we have developed a range of products for retailers to deliver exactly these kinds of industry-leading customer experience online, powered by retail data.

In the next part of our series on the post-COVID landscape in Asia-Pacific, we'll explore the diverging needs of customers in the wake of the pandemic, and how omnichannel personalisation can help retailers meet those needs efficiently and effectively.

[1] E-commerce drives China's stay-at-home economy in coronavirus aftermath & China's online grocery sector set for explosive growth, says GlobalData

[2] Chinese shoppers are staying online. That's great news for

[3] Study cites barriers to online grocery shopping

[4] Tesco Delivers One Million Online Orders In A Week In The UK


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Retail leaders must objectively understand how their business currently considers Customers before trying to set a more Customer-centric direction and focus. There are some formal assessment methodologies, like dunnhumby's Retail Preference Index (RPI) and Customer Centricity Assessment (CCA), which offer detailed evaluations of a business' capabilities, strengths and weaknesses based on Customer perceptions (RPI) or global best practices (CCA).

The approach outlined below is not intended to replace these formal tools; rather, these observations are intended as a kind of 'toe in the water' to help retail leaders form early hypotheses and points of views. These are rules of thumb, heuristics culled from global experience. Later, leaders might use these observations to informally check progress from time to time as a way of assessing whether the "program in the stores matches the program in our heads".

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In the first episode of Customer First Radio, Dave Clements, Global Head of Retail for dunnhumby and David Ciancio, Global Head of Grocery for dunnhumby kick off the series by discussing what it means to be a truly Customer First business, share which retailers and brands today embody a Customer First mindset, and examine how Customer First materialized during the pandemic with retailers.