Hendersons – Building a Covid Community

Hendersons – Building a Covid Community

When Neighbourhood Retailer speaks to Paddy Doody, Sales and Marketing Director, Hendersons, Northern Ireland is well into week 12 of the pandemic. Now, as the country returns to a sense of normality, the Group is taking stock to strategize and plan the best path forward to continue serving communities across the province.

Describing the last few months as “extraordinary times”, this retail executive commends the hard work of both in-store teams and head office staff in helping the Group to navigate unprecedented challenges over the last few months.

Almost overnight, Henderson Group head office relocated to remote working which was testament to the organisations’ IT department which speedily ordered and installed over 120 computers to facilitate working from home during the pandemic.

Perspex screens, sanitising stations, POS, and social distancing protocols were quickly installed in all company-owned and independently operated Group stores. An Incident Management Team, made up of directors and key members of staff, initially met daily to set out a plan for each day.

Recounting long hours for everyone in the initial days of the crisis, Paddy tells of how senior members of the sales/marketing team were out on shop floors stocking shelves and assisting with deliveries to help retailers keep up with shopper demand.

“We saw exceptional increases in sales along with a large drop in footfall,” says Paddy. “We had fewer people coming into the stores, but they were buying significantly more. It’s a testament to our retailers and our own teams, particularly our logistics team, that we were able to adapt so quickly.”

At the heart of the community

While retailers will have to wait and see if pandemic sales in the convenience sector continue on the same trajectory, recent research commissioned by the Group shows that the most important concern for shoppers currently is ‘keeping me safe’ followed by ‘value’.

“I think the fact our sales continue to be very strong and above Christmas levels indicate that our customers trust us and appreciate what we’re doing,” says Paddy. “We have over 460 branded stores in Northern Ireland whether they be SPAR, EUROSPAR, ViVO, or ViVOXTRA, and our reach is in every community, every town, and every village. People see that as a comfort and over the last 12 weeks saw our stores as safer and easier to shop in than the multiples.”

Indeed, customers have flooded the Group’s social media accounts with messages of praise and support for the brands and staff in stores. Many satisfied shoppers have also sent in handmade gifts and cards, including children’s drawings.

“Our store staff are frontline workers and they have families and the worries that we all have surrounding COVID-19.  Throughout this crisis they have put themselves out there to serve the local community so when their efforts are acknowledged by shoppers it’s so uplifting for them.”

Despite stores trading at well above average for the time of year, Henderson has also found the time to give back to the local community with events such as a Virtual Sports Day Challenge as part of the wider initiative Healthy Kidz. Most significantly, the Group launched a Community Cash Back Grant which saw £20,000 go to deserving charities across Northern Ireland. It would have been very easy to repurpose the marketing budget for cancelled events to offset the additional costs of the pandemic, but the management team made a decision to invest the money to help local communities.

Using social media, the Henderson Group asked its followers to nominate charities close to their hearts and the ones with the most votes received a portion of the £20,000 fund. In total 16 good causes received a boost to their COVID-19 crisis response funds.

Opportunities from challenges

However, it hasn’t all been increased sales and community presence. In the first week of the crisis, the Group’s fuel volumes declined by 75 per cent as customers stayed at home to keep safe.

“Because nobody was out driving, our coffee and food-to-go sales dropped by a similar amount and we closed delis and hot food counters,” says Paddy. “These things have a big impact on the business in terms of profitability.”

Elsewhere in the business, Henderson Foodservice, which supplies schools, hotels, pubs, restaurants, and leisure centres throughout the island of Ireland, has experienced a huge downturn in sales as its clients aren’t able to open.

As these elements of the business begin to slowly open over the next few months, Paddy states the Group will be guided very closely by local Environmental Health Officer’s in Antrim and Newtownabbey Council.

“We’re going to see a lot of change in the foodservice category,” he says. “There will be fewer open salad bars and more pre-packaged products until this passes. We will outline the best and safest practice for foodservice and be guided by the NI Executive and the Food Standards Agency every time.”

Looking to the future

The current crisis has certainly brought to the front a new way of shopping that wasn’t prevalent in the convenience market before now. Within seven to eight days of lockdown, 250 out of 450 SPAR, EUROSPAR, ViVO, AND ViVOXTRA branded stores in Northern Ireland were offering customers the option for home deliveries within a two-mile radius of the store.

“The delivery service focused primarily on the elderly, those who were isolating, and vulnerable people in our society,” says Paddy. “It was a great example of people coming together and I couldn’t praise our independent retailers highly enough for the way they have grasped this and adapted to give shoppers the best possible service.”

The Henderson Group are currently trialling a new app called Appetite by SPAR which enables customers to order, pay and, collect their order in store. If testing goes well the app will be made available to all company-owned stores and independent retailers in the Group.

Self-service checkouts are also being installed in larger stores and contactless payments have risen to £45 after significant lobbying from the Group through Retail NI at the beginning of the crisis.

The support from central government and the Northern Ireland Executive has been very good overall, Paddy believes, but more needs to be done to get local retailers the same level of rates relief as the rest of the UK.

“A number of our independent retailers will not get the full 12 months rates relief because their stores are greater than 3,000 sq. ft. and we will continue to make representations through Retail NI on that. Having said that, the initial three-month holiday has been very useful to offset massive increases in costs that were associated with COVID-19.”

As lockdown measures relax and the general public gets back to work, a sense of normality is returning to Henderson stores giving the management team a chance to plan how they will take the stores into the ‘new normal’.

A positive is that Beer, Wines and Spirit sales have more than doubled in all stores that have an off licence. “I imagine sales will fall down to a much more normal level, but that level, I think, will be higher than it was before as we will maintain some of that business because people will take time to revert back to previous behaviours” he says.

“We have a lot of new customers, who are using us for the first time, and have had a great experience with us in-store in terms of range, value, service, and locality. “The challenge now is to retain as much business from this time as possible and the way we will do that is through great customer service and showing that you can get a good value range of products in a much smaller store.”