Countdown reaps rewards from digital

Published on the 18/08/2020 | Written by Heather Wright


Internal capability and agile teamwork pay dividends…

When round one of Covid hit early this year, Sally Copland – and no doubt all of the management team at Countdown – breathed a sigh of relief for the investment they’d made in the past four years into not only digital technology but into growing their internal development capabilities and embracing agile.

Had it not been for that investment, says Copland – Countdown general manager brand and CountdownX – Covid would have been ‘much more challenging for us as an organisation’.

The company found itself front and centre as an essential service. Suddenly, it’s staff, and systems, were on the frontline.

“We are an organisation that is prepared to test and learn with new and different technologies.”

E-commerce demand ballooned, as did queries from customers – Countdown’s Olive chatbot logged more than 20,000 interactions a day, up from 1,000 a month before lockdown. Resources and logistics had to be dramatically scaled up – at one point an additional 65 trucks were plying the roads with deliveries.

A new distribution centre was built out because of the ‘enormous’ pressure on the supply chain. A priority assistance service was stood up in five days – and all while the company transitioned overnight to having 700 team members working remotely.

“Everything we did was incredibly public,” Copland says. “The demand for online shopping changed and that posed challenges for us as an organisation as to how we were going to scale the service incredibly quickly, but also make sure we could repurpose it to ensure that those most vulnerable in the community could get access.

“I’m very proud of what my team did to pivot and grow our e-commerce capacity incredibly quickly for those customers.”

More than 200,000 new registrations for online shopping were logged, including 110,000 for priority assist customers.

“I have no doubt our last two or three years of investment in digital and technology, whether from a team perspective in building out our own in-house development, testing and engineering capability, owning our own platforms, and implementing agile so that the team knew how to work at pace and in a really connected way – was crucial [to our success].

“We have embedded our technology thinking, strategy and delivery into our core business.”

Digital: More than e-Com
The company’s digital unit, CountdownX was born out of the idea of investing in digital and data-driven technology to transform the business.

A key decision in that move was owning its own platforms. It brought its bespoke Trader platform, created in partnership with long-time partner Olympic, in-house, with a team of developers and a number of squads working on the platform.

The company’s fulfilment system is, and always has been bespoke – something Copland attributes to Countdown’s early moves into online shopping, and a lack of other options at the time.

A third in-house team develops the apps for the company. All up, the company has a team of around 100 to 120 developers and core IT maintenance staff.

On the data front, Copland says: “Data drives our decision making, our insights, our understanding and our strategy.”

The company’s longstanding OneCard loyalty programme provides a wealth of data to understand customer buying behaviours and preferences and help it plan offers that resonate with customers, ensure stores are built in the right way for the right catchment and demographic and to enable quicker shopping experiences for customers.

She admits the issue of data privacy is a big one, saying it’s ‘absolutely inherent’ on the company to focus on privacy and take its role in that incredibly seriously. To that end, the company’s legal team support the squads, regular information sessions are held and there is  a high focus on cyber risks, leaning on the technology and tools of its Australian sister business for support.

Digital isn’t just about online. Copland says there’s plenty of work going on to use digital to improve in-store shopping experiences.

The company’s app, launched a couple of years ago,  enables customers to do what they most requested – building a shopping list and have it sorted by aisle, based on their local store. It also has OneCard details, and is used to pump out specials and ensure customers know which of their favourites purchases are on sale. Stores can also be alerted when customers are nearing arrival to pick up orders for speedier service.

Future developments will include enabling customers to share their shopping list across households.

“It’s an important experience to be able to bring that technology to enable that in-store shopping experience as well as the online experience,” Copland says.

It’s also indicative of Copland’s strong belief in only providing technology that customers actually want.

“There’s no point investing in digital and technology solutions unless there is a need for your customer to have it. You have to think about digital from the customer aspect.”

Countdown has a ‘customer experience framework’ and digital and user experience capabilities embedded in its teams, as well as working with agencies to support it in that space.

The Ponsonby office of CountdownX is above a working store, with regular customer testing taking place on premises, while customer experience panels are also held to identify areas where Countdown can improve.

“We really want to make sure that the functionality and experiences we make for customers are relevant and meaningful to them.”

Behind the scenes, automation is being harnessed for picking in the company’s eStores (a third store was announced in late July, highlighting the ongoing increasing demand for online shopping. The first store only launched during L4).

Meanwhile in the Waikato’s Rototuna store – the company’s first ‘smart’ store – robots have hit the aisles, with Kai roaming the aisles and notifying staff not only of any out of stock items, but any safety issues such as spills and unidentified objects on the floor.

“We are an organisation that is prepared to test and learn with new and different technologies,” Copland says.

The road to digital
When it comes to going digital, Copland is clear on the first step: Understand why you want to make the investment in digital infrastructure, tools and experiences.

“And that fundamentally always comes back to your customer [whether external or internal]. Who at the end of the day is your end user, what would they say is important to them and how might digital tech play a role in enabling their experiences? That’s critical.

“We always need to start with the customer and the opportunity we have around the customer.”

Learning how to deliver at speed and test whatever is built building with end users to make sure what is created is fit for purpose is also critical, she says.

“The other thing is technology historically has been seen as an enabler to your strategy and for me and our organisation, digital technology is a core part of our strategy: Providing for a connected customer experience and innovating for our customer in a digital context is one of our top priorities from a strategic perspective. It’s not business and technology, or business or technology – technology is fundamentally part of your business so how do you really think about the role it can play in modernising what you want to do.”

And, she adds, technology is nothing without having good people. “The platforms and apps still need humans to enable them to be fit for purpose for your customer and growing and enabling the team so they can deliver on that is critically important.”

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