In response to the ongoing coronavirus saga, Sydney’s natural and organic supermarket chain Wholefoods House has embraced online operations this year. Here, chief operating officer Luke Christie explains why B2B and B2C interactions are increasingly happening virtually, and what health-conscious consumers and the market want in 2020.
Q. Has trading at your stores been disrupted this year?
Like most food retailers, we have seen strong sales growth throughout the pandemic. During the panic buying in March, we reduced our trading times by 2.5 hours. We have limited floor space in our stores and needed to alter operations to maintain social distancing and allow our staff to restock safely. But we have not altered our trading hours on an ongoing basis.
Q. Have you made any adjustments to your ordering process this year?
The pandemic has certainly affected the way we interact with our B2B partners. From March until August, we had extremely limited personal contact with most of our grocery suppliers. Meetings were conducted remotely and we received fewer product samples from suppliers. Why? I think most businesses were in damage control – including us – and were not in an optimal position to consider expanding. Any added complexity would have risked taking business resources that couldn’t be spared. So, our range did not expand over that period. In the last month, however, we’ve seen suppliers in person and sample volumes have increased.
Q. In your view, will remote sales meetings continue after the pandemic?
Yes, I anticipate the pandemic will have a permanent effect on the way businesses interact. With digital platforms like Zoom and others, remote working will become more common as it is cheaper and more convenient to facilitate. But I do value person-to-person contact as there is a greater ability and scope to form close working relationships. This doesn’t always translate when done digitally.
Q. Would Wholefoods House consider establishing a new relationship with a supplier over the internet?
I’d certainly be willing to consider it if I was presented with such a circumstance. I think it depends on how this pandemic tapers out. At the moment, I would deem it essential to develop new supplier relationships over the internet and phone for obvious safety reasons. And I can sense there will be a flow-over from this post pandemic. I really do think that we and the market will be heading in that direction.
Q. What led to the launch of your online ‘click and collect’ service earlier this year?
We’ve had the online store in the pipeline for about two years, so we were quite fortunate that a substantial amount of groundwork had already been done. When we realised a COVID outbreak could lead to a temporary closing of our bricks-and-mortar stores, we fast-tracked the online launch.
Q. How have consumers reacted to the service?
The response has been enthusiastic. After offering a ‘click and collect’ service for the last five months, we’ve come to realise that an online presence is essential for retail businesses moving into the 2020s. Consumers are looking to the internet for convenience, and presence in this market will be essential in delivering value into the future.
Q. Aside from the move to online, how has consumer behaviour shifted this year?
Consumers are developing a greater awareness of the link between nutrition and a healthy immune system. We have seen strong sales growth in products that are beneficial in boosting immunity. Any product that promotes vitamin D or C has seen growth and I would expect that most savvy suppliers and producers would be adding these ingredients to new products in development. The pandemic has exposed medium-term opportunities in this space.
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