Interview: Hubbub on revitalising local food shops using technology

Online grocery delivery service, Hubbub, is everything the large supermarkets are not – local, personal, and most importantly, agile.

Hubbub's big advantage, according to co-CEO William Reeve, is using technology to leverage supply chains which are centuries old, rather than ploughing millions of pounds into warehouses and robotics.

Traditional grocers are scratching their heads trying to work out how to make online grocery shopping profitable. And while Reeve estimates Ocado spends around £25 per order on fulfilment, Hubbub's localised business model means the company exploits existing assets used by local shops for generations.

"Ocado had a leg up from Waitrose, but in effect, they've had to invent the full merchandising offer themselves," says Reeve, whose internet background boasts the likes of LoveFilm, Graze, Zoopla and Secret Escapes.

Hubbub customers purchase groceries online from as many of its participating local food stores as they like. Once an order is placed, the local shops are sent a message with the order and they pick the food from the shop floor during quiet times of the morning. The orders are then handed over to a van driver in the afternoon who takes the customer's entire order to their front door by the evening.

"We pride ourselves on no robots," says Reeve. "We leverage the shop's investment, stock and staff and we're filling their capacity for them. It doesn't really cost them anything as long as we don’t interrupt their peak trading hours and we're bringing them extra business."

Reeve explains that when our parents went grocery shopping they would pick all the food off the shelf, take it to the cash desk to pay and drive it home. "As soon as you offer the convenience of delivery you have to do a lot of the work the customer used to do for you."

The crown jewels

The clever technology part kicks in when the various parts of a customer's order are picked up by different van drivers. The various van drivers meet in a central location to switch food from van to van until one customer's whole order from several shops is sitting in one vehicle, ready to be driven to their home.

While this sounds labour intensive, bespoke technology plays an important role. Reeve did not want to discuss this technology in too much detail  ̶  calling it the 'crown jewels'  ̶   but the general idea is Uber-meets-groceries. The van drivers have a mobile app which tells them what packages need to be in what vehicle, allowing them to keep track of what order is where in the system.

"The technology allows the vans to become a mobile warehouse," he says. "It allows small vans to operate in unison and we're very efficient in the number of orders we can deliver."

Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers

From end-to-end Hubbub is not trying to compete with the likes of Tesco and Asda, quite the opposite. The company was founded by Marisa Leaf who, as a human rights barrister, worked long hours and struggled to buy groceries from her local shops as they were closed by the time she returned home from work. As a foodie this frustrated her and she was fed up of her local convenience stores.

"She wanted the experience of Ocado but the quality and diversity of produce she could get locally," adds Reeve, who says Leaf quit her job to start Hubbub in 2008.

Hubbub seems to be campaigning on behalf of the local food shops which are being threatened by the large grocers. And it is not just the van drivers who have access to the Hubbub technology, the shop system – known internally as Hercules – is a suite which allows shops to put their products online and receive orders.

It allows the local shops to implement special offers, alter inventory, pricing and product descriptions, as well as providing a customer service portal similar to a retail CRM system.

"It's clearly been designed by people who understand what is different about local shops," adds Reeve, who says some of Hubbub's clients do not have electronic cash registers or photos of their products, while others have full "whiz-bang" EPOS systems and support their own online delivery.

While the majority of technology is developed in-house, Hubbub also uses Zendesk off-the-shelf technology for its customer contact system. It also uses Google Analytics, as well as Amazon Web Services for hosting and My SQL for its database.

By choosing Amazon and My SQL Hubbub will be able to scale over time. Currently the service is only available in London – with North and South Londoners not able to order from the other side of the river – but it is these so-called "cells" which Reeve says will help the company eventually scale nationwide.

"South London is its own cell and the vans don't talk to North London, but this is our model for growing the business – horizontal scaling, it's not about getting more sophisticated," he explains, demonstrating the scalability of the existing technology.

That said, the company is still ironing out its mobile strategy. It has an iPhone app (with Android on the way), but Reeve's team has built a responsive website which is currently in beta and he believes is more fit for purpose.

"The app is good for repeat orders, but responsive is great for showing beautiful photography and is much more user friendly on smaller screens."

While Reeve believes Hubbub will be nationwide using its cell expansion model within a few years, he thinks it may even be outside the UK within five.

While there's still a lot of work to do behind the scenes, Reeve adds: "I don't think in five years' time it will look a lot different."