Covid-19: How retail is pivoting in response to coronavirus

No retailer could have possibly prepared for the huge impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet in a very short space of time some have managed to quickly adapt their businesses to the new reality. 

Often that has involved a digital element, from rebalancing platforms towards more eCommerce shopping, to offering richer online content including classes or events. Sometimes it has also included unexpected collaborations with fierce rivals. Or a fundamental change in business models.

Here we look at some examples of positive innovations to combat the unprecedented challenges faced by all.

Doing more online

John Lewis is setting up an online hub so customers can stay connected at home. This will include advice for new parents and wellbeing services, such as craft and cookery classes. 

While that initiative is yet to go live, its sister company Waitrose also has a dedicated advice section on its site: offering tips from chefs on how to recreate restaurant-style food, help on how to stay healthy while at home and links to sites such as the National Gallery’s virtual art tours. 

In addition, the company has set up a number of initiatives to support at risk customers and NHS workers as well as creating a £1 million community support fund to delivery groceries to vulnerable people. 

New delivery methods

Although M&S’ food hall range is not yet available online (it will be supplying Ocado’s groceries from September), in just a few weeks the company has moved into online orders for basic items. It has launched on Deliveroo to deliver orders from its BP filling station stores.

Around 60 M&S products are available on the app, including essential such as milk, bread and ready meals with free delivery to customers in 30 minutes, with some items capped at two per order. 

Deliveroo is separately rolling out an 'Essentials by Deliveroo' range, including convenience items such as cereal, rice, biscuits and tinned goods that can be delivered.

Competitors turned collaborators 

Wholesale food rivals Brakes and Bidfood have teamed up to provide an emergency food parcel scheme for 300,000 of the most vulnerable of 1.5 million people identified as needing assistance by the government.

The companies will use their large network of depots across the country, which have recently seen “significant spare capacity as a result of the significant reduction in orders from hospitality customers.” 

Ed Winterschladen, executive vice president management consultancy Proxima, says this is a noteworthy partnership. “They are fierce rivals who are now working together, which is an example of innovation as well as collaboration.”

Pivoting business

Healthy fast food chain Leon has converted some of its outlets into mini-supermarkets and is also providing online groceries. The firm is offering ready meals, sauces, meats and other food that can be bought in-store to take-away or online via Deliveroo or Uber Eats. 

“Right now, you have struggling restaurants and their staff ready to provide food to customers on the one hand, and on the other, supermarkets with empty shelves,” said Leon founder John Vincent.

The company is also spearheading a £1 million crowdfunding campaign to help feed NHS staff working on the front line, along with the likes of Dishoom and Franco Manca. The not-for-profit venture will provide one hot healthy meal a day, starting with London hospitals and then going national.

Permanent change?

Although digital has enabled a lot of these businesses to provide an agile response to the crisis, it is not a panacea for all retailers. Proxima’s Winterschladen points out that while Primark may have shut its stores and has no eCommerce business to fall back on – in fact all fashion retailers are struggling, even those with an online presence.

“Of course, having an online presence may help them weather this better… but it is very sector dependent.” He also notes how retailers treat staff and suppliers coming into the crisis will stand them in good stead when they come out. 

George Lawrie, an analyst at Forrester Research agrees that retailers are already on the journey to digital. “What we might see as a permanent change [from the crisis] is that people might be even more inclined to buy online than they were before.”

And while that could pose an opportunity for innovative retailers after the crisis, for many simply surviving will be the main priority for the next few months.