A two-year programme of work was completed by UK grocer Asda in January 2016, resulting in the alignment of the retailer's central organisation to ensure it offers customers an experience fit for a modern retailing world – with "omnichannel" the buzzword driving the change.

Like many retailers operating in the UK market, Asda has been embarking on a transformation programme to enhance efficiency, update technology infrastructure and put the customers' needs at the centre of boardroom strategy.

Ahead of her appearance on the conference programme at next week's RBTE, Asda's senior vice president (SVP) for people and stores, Hayley Tatum, explained to Essential Retail some of the changes that have taken place within the Walmart-owned supermarket in recent months.

"We have a chief customer officer [Andy Murray was appointed last month] who is effectively the voice of the customer in our boardroom, offering insight into customer shopping habits and most importantly telling us what customers want," Tatum explained.

"Customers tell us that they want us to save them time and save them money. Customer insight tells us that they shop with us because of price but we need to find innovative ways to offer them convenience as well and that is exactly what we're doing. The whole business is designed to have a single view of the customer across all formats and channels."

Aside from a core focus on customer behaviour, which has been a part of the Asda strategy for a number of years now through engagement initiatives such as its Asda Mumdex panel, the two-year programme to modernise the business has resulted in new job roles and some roles being redefined.

Asda's ToYou service is one of a number of features expected to help boost store traffic

Such a project, which is tied in with a wider drive to cut costs by £1 billion over the next five years, has also resulted in job losses. In 2014 Asda announced over 1,000 middle management roles were being cut and, in January, plans were put in place to reduce headcount in the head office by around 200.

Although staff numbers are being reduced, many people are being redeployed in roles focused on serving customers in different ways.

"We changed our store management roles and we now have a dedicated customer manager in every superstore accountable for customer experience regardless of how they shop," Tatum noted.

"We also have dedicated eCommerce trading managers who are accountable for delivering the operational elements of every online interaction our customers have. Our buyers buy for every channel and every format because our customers are shopping at Asda whether they are visiting us in-store or online. Our marketing function has also changed to reflect the omnichannel design of the business, which facilitates a single customer view – online and offline."

All departments are focused on learning about customer behaviour, and Tatum says this insight is driving multiple parts of the business. Clearly, the advent of technology has changed the way customers can interact with a brand or retailer with emerging platforms such as web, mobile and social not even a consideration for businesses as little as 15 years ago. The above changes to job roles have taken place with these macro trends in mind.

Tatum commented: "As a business we have moved towards an omnichannel design.

"We no longer have separate functions for online and store operations. We buy for any format and we are now set up to serve the omnichannel customer. Whereas our marketing and insight teams were split to focus on online and stores in isolation they have been brought together to focus on offering a first class omnichannel service."

She added: "We are also innovating in stores to ensure that our customers enjoy shopping with us and get the hassle-free experience they tell us they want.

"Self service checkouts have transformed the way our colleagues interact with customers. Instead of sitting behind a till they are now checkout hosts guiding customers through the self scan process and engaging with them with Asda personality. 50% of transactions are now via the self scan checkouts with 35% of in-store colleagues helping with that service compared to 15% five years ago."

Tatum has played a lead role in much of this change at Asda over the last two years, and despite job losses in stores and more of a focus on the digital aspects of retailing, she suggests Asda is keeping its real estate at the heart of how it operates.

"Stores are still a key part of our customer proposition, in fact the vast majority of our trade is still through our superstores and supermarkets, and we are currently investing in our large format stores across the country," she remarked.

"Our omnichannel services such as ToYou and click & collect are helping to drive footfall and we hope that will increase as these services become more and more popular with our customers."  

Tatum and Asda acknowledge that customer habits are changing, with trends towards "shopping around" and searching for convenience meaning the traditional big weekly shop is being replaced by "little and often" supermarket visits.

"The better and more convenient we can make the store experience, and the more services we can offer in-store means that they are still a big part of the future of grocery shopping," she said.

Tatum's views on how to run a successful modern-day retailing operation and engaging staff to be part of the journey are expected to addressed when she appears on stage at next week's RBTE, which will take place at London Olympia on 9-10 March.

The Asda exec's presentation, 'Understanding our connected customer and delivering outstanding customer service in an omnichannel world', takes place at 14:10 on Thursday 10 March.

Says Tatum: "The appetite for innovation is driven from the boardroom throughout the business.

"The executive board is committed to giving customers what they want, which is a service which fits in with their lifestyles. Technology is a key enabler for providing the omnichannel service our customers want, therefore it is firmly on our boardroom agenda."

Tatum will be speaking about the connected customer at RBTE on 9 March at 14:20 in Theatre A. Click here to  register  for your free RBTE ticket.