Covid-19 #TOTPU: Morrisons pops up in hospital car parks

When the UK government ordered all ‘non-essential’ retail stores to temporary close, last month, we at Essential Retail thought we might be putting our monthly Top of the Pop-Ups series on hold. But it seems we had not given enough credit to the creative nature of the retail industry we cover.

In times of crisis, as we’re now experiencing with the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus, we’re seeing pop-up retail come into its own. To name but two examples, Waitrose has turned some of its in-store cafes into pop-up shops for NHS staff, while Tesco has announced plans to launch temporary stores in the UK’s new Nightingale hospitals, which were built to increase the nation's Covid-19 care capacity.

Meanwhile, Morrisons has established a pop-up concept in hospital car-parks for NHS workers. And it’s this initiative that provides the focus of this month’s Top of the Pop-Ups.

Sadly, due to restrictions on travel – and the fact we’re not NHS staff – we weren’t able to visit this one ourselves. You’ll have to rely on our description based on a chat with Morrisons CEO, David Potts, who spoke to us at the weekend.

What, where, when?

Morrisons has launched a dedicated food box service for NHS workers. Staff at St James's Hospital Leeds and Leeds General Infirmary can contact Morrisons to order a £30 version of the food box, for collection in those hospitals’ car-parks.

Pre-ordered boxes – which include a range of essentials such as bread, vegetables, and tinned goods, and are tailored for meat eaters or vegetarians – are distributed from a Morrisons truck. NHS staff can also purchase boxes in person with non-cash payments.

The original plan was for trucks to visit these locations on Mondays and Thursdays, but Potts told us the whole service is set to scale in the coming weeks after high initial demand.

Morrisons is in the process of establishing a website for the service, but NHS staff can currently call 0345 611 6111 to arrange delivery to one of the Leeds hospitals.

Collections will be at 6am-8am and 4pm-6pm on Mondays and Thursdays.

Standout features

At present, the service comprises a huge Morrisons truck in a hospital car-park – naturally, the most visible standout feature of this new initiative.

The retailer’s fruit packing site in Bradford is being used to put the boxes together, but conveyor belts have been implemented in Morrisons’ facilities near Derby and Sheffield in preparation for this service to scale. Potts told us Morrisons is preparing to launch the service for NHS Trusts across the north of England, to help feed keyworkers on the frontline of the coronavirus battle.

What the retailer says…

Potts said: “In a sense it’s a pop-up because it’s popping up in a car park, doing its work, and moving on.

“But it will be back at that car park a few days later or so.”

Morrisons CEO David Potts established an interim core purpose for the company, to feed the nation during the coronavirus
Morrisons CEO David Potts established an interim core purpose for the company, to feed the nation during the coronavirus

The Morrisons boss does not have a set number of NHS Trusts and hospitals he intends to target, but he wants to serve sites north of the The Wash in line with demand.

The move to launch £30 boxes specifically for NHS staff came after the retailer had unveiled £35 boxes for home delivery to vulnerable customers – a partnership established with parcel carrier DPD, which includes a £5 fulfilment fee.

Hinting at a more permanent extension to the business, Potts remarked: “The channel we’ve discovered, here, is box food – both online and offline. We’ll see where it goes, but the core purpose right now is to feed the nation.”

Like many of the UK supermarkets, Morrisons has been very active in launching new initiatives since the coronavirus took hold in the UK, including dedicated in-store shopping hours for NHS staff, as well as charitable and foodbank donations.

“When the crisis occurred, we recognised early on that it was going to affect every stakeholder and every part of the company and so we paused our core purpose and we briefed in an interim core purpose – playing our full part in feeding the nation,” explained Potts.

“We communicated that to our whole business – 95,632 people – and it gave us a real sense of purpose as to what we could truly do through the crisis.”

The Essential Retail verdict

The UK grocers have stood out for their monumental effort in this unique crisis, with frontline workers in the shops, delivery drivers, and warehouse staff arguably worthy of most acclaim. Tens of thousands of new employees have joined the sector in the last three weeks, too.

Although they could perhaps have clamped down on customer stockpiling/panic buying by introducing limits on purchases a little earlier than they did, the supermarkets’ have been nothing short of heroic in their ability to continue working, scale services, and provide for fractious shoppers. And Morrisons has led on many of the positive moves.

Be it the announcement at the onset of the crisis to pay small suppliers immediately to counter any difficulties caused by the virus, its food bank donation worth £10 million, or the fact it was among the first retailers to get its full store estate set up with the new £45 contactless payment limit, Morrisons has been decisive in its actions.

The £30 food boxes delivered to NHS staff at car parks is just another example of that, and, who knows, it might end up being a pop-up-style enterprise that becomes a permanent new channel? From my chat with Potts it’s clear that was not the motivation, but the retailer is certainly starting to understand box food as a potential growth market.

As our #TOTPU series has previously discussed, pop-ups often become a pre-cursor to something more permanent. In Morrisons’ case, maybe its reaction to an unprecedented situation has helped the company accidentally stumble across a viable long-term channel.