Between March 2020 and March 2021 Israel went through three lockdown cycles due to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Israeli consumer ‘discovered’ online shopping with more than one million Israelis making an online purchase for the first time. Supermarkets were among the only stores to remain open throughout the lockdowns. Even though, online grocery shopping has also experienced significant growth; during the second lockdown, which coincided with the Jewish New Year holiday in September, there was a 22.7% increase in food purchased online.
This swift and substantial shift from supermarkets and open-air markets to computer screens forced Israeli retailers to adapt to new operational modes. One of the most critical aspects is customer support and care – how to continue to provide the warm and personal service Israeli consumers are used to in the impersonal and distanced interface of e-commerce?
Shufersal, the largest supermarket chain in Israel with close to 400 brick-and-mortar stores, saw increase in 2020 in both overall demand and online sales. It was also a year when customer care took center stage. In this interview, Zvi Baida, Chief Customer Officer of Shufesal shares his own personal experiences and that of his company from the year of lockdowns.
As the largest supermarket chain in Israel, how was 2020 for Shufersal?
2020 was a very challenging year. We faced a significant increase in demand for our services from the Israeli consumer, especially in the online channel. The fact that people didn’t travel abroad, and most stayed at home the entire year, directed most of the food and other consuming goods shopping to the web, and as the biggest player in the market we were challenged with answering these needs in a timely and professional manner.
Out of the 365 days, how many were your brick-and-mortar stores open?
All days, except for Saturdays and holidays, as we always operate.
I can imagine that as all businesses in 2020, you needed to make a strategic shift to digital. First tell me, how significant was your online operation prior to Covid-19?
Shufersal led the grocery online market in Israel, many years prior to 2020. The online business has been one of the most important pillars in our strategy in the last decade. The early investment in online infrastructures, especially in the technology, logistics and customer service – enabled our rapid growth in 2020 in light of the extremely high demands for these services during to the pandemic.
As Chief Customer Officer, what were your main concerns during lockdowns for both in-store shopping and online shopping?
- Safety of customers and employees during the pandemic in the brick-and-mortar stores
- Providing consistent quality of service
- Being able to offer service to every customer who needed us
- Opening new slots and expanding our services to new categories
How did you preserve customer relations and care?
- Adding many new service agents
- Adding new service channels including self-service application and website chat bots
- Expanding service hours of brick-and-mortar stores, including on Saturday nights – when we usually don’t work
- Using a knowledge management system – by an Israeli company, KMS Lighthouse – in order to create a centralized database for our agents so they could provide more professional, data-driven answers
What new things did you learn about your customers and about customer care as a whole?
That in regular times and especially during unusual times – the most important link in the value chain is customer care. It’s our special ‘tool’ to earn trust from our customers and maintain it. And as trust is the most important element in every relationship, it is especially true in company-customer relationship.
Taking a more general view of the retail industry, in what ways did the pandemic change how brick-and-mortar stores would operate from now on, if any?
Stores haven’t changed much; basic principles are still the same. What has changed is that numerous people tried online shopping for the first time during the pandemic. My belief is that these first-timers will continue to shop online at some level of frequency, so in the brick-and-mortar universe only the strong will survive, especially in groceries and daily items.