Head of customer at Waitrose discusses impact of Covid-19 on grocery retail

Martin George, head of customer at Waitrose, has spoken in depth about the impact of COVID-19 on the business and how it has changed the future of retail at Advertising Week 2020.  

George covered the challenges Waitrose faced dealing with panic buying back in March, the huge growth in online shoppers as a result, and shared his thoughts on the future of physical retail space and work.  

Taking place over the next two weeks, Advertising Week 2020 is the world’s largest gathering of the creative, entertainment, media and technology industries. The event provides a global platform to explore the big issues affecting society, business and everything in between. 

On panic buying in March, George said:

It’s been six months like no other…The demand for food in the early days was extraordinary. It was like we’d never seen before. Even greater than we experience in Christmas week, and clearly the retailers and supply chain really struggled early on to cope with demand. We saw some products running out – some were predictable, some, like toilet rolls, perhaps less predictable. 

We probably forget the empty shelves that existed for several weeks. People were really were getting anxious about whether that situation would be remedied, and I must admit that period of very extreme demand lasted longer than I was expecting. 

On the growth of online shopping due to Covid-19:

It was about 5% of our business, so put that into context, we were probably doing about 60,000 deliveries a week just delivering from waitrose.com. Last week we did 170,000, and the vast majority of that growth has come about because of the impact of COVID. 

60% of people tell us that they shop online more for groceries than they did pre-pandemic 60%. So this isn’t just a small change, it’s the majority of the British population who are now shopping more online food than they were pre-pandemic.

On the future of physical stores:

It’s about making it worth picking up the car keys for, because online is so good. It’s so easy, so convenient. But the bar is now very high for physical stores, you really have to make sure that the experience warrants going out of your way, getting in the car, getting on the tube, getting on the train, getting the bike or walking to the store, picking up the items and then bringing them back.

On the shift to home working:

My expectation is that people will work, maximum of two days in the office into the future. I really, I really think the days of five days in the office have really gone.

I am of the generation where presenteeism was the order of the day when I first started. There was a sense of machismo about first in the office, and last out, and you know who that benefits, and you know who that penalised.

I think the other thing that’s going to become increasingly obvious is the way in which remote working is going to enable us to employ a more diverse workforce…You know disabled partners who may have worried about how they’re going to get to and from the office. We will be able to encourage them to join us, so I think that actually remote working will enable a much greater diversity and greater sense of inclusion amongst the workforce.