5 learnings Super Retail Group’s customer chief is taking from the crisis

Chief strategy and customer officer for Australian retail group talks about the customer and business prioritisation that she sees directing brand strategy long term

A physical mascot for customers in meetings, ruthless prioritisation, cross-functional teamwork and employee camaraderie are just a few ways Australian retail group, Super Retail Group, has ridden through the COVID-19 crisis.

During this week’s Salesforce Live virtual event for the retail and consumer packaged goods industry, Super Retail Group chief strategy and customer officer, Katie McNamara, shared the initiatives and operational workflows that not only served the business well in the height of the COVID-19 crisis, but that she regards worth holding onto long-term.

With a fresh leadership team facing the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires then the COVID-19 crisis, McNamara said Super Retail Group’s executives did pause and reflect in the early stages of the lockdown on how to best cope. The group includes brands such as BCF, Supercheap Auto, Macpac and Rebel.

“At the very start, our role as senior executives was to shepherd this business through the crisis,” she said. “Look after customers, team and make sure we had a business at the end of it. Holding that as guiding light keeps you focused on what’s important, what’s not, and helped us through that period.

“It was about ruthless prioritisation, but also coming together as a team. We started number of actions we hadn’t had before.”

1.Really listen to the voice of the customer

While ‘customer’ sits at the heart of the Super Retail Group business, McNamara said the team had stepped up its game over the last year. This voice of customer emphasis became even sharper through the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s been about really, truly listening to customer, understanding what it is they need and want that might not be obvious in the first instance,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean anything unless you bring voice of customer into your business decisions.”

To bring the customer to life in meetings and with leadership, McNamara had introduced a physical artefact, ‘Scout’ to physically represent the group’s customer. The teddy bear wears Aussie rules shorts, has a toolbelt and Macpac clothing and sits at the executive table for all meetings.

“Such a simple thing at the table does make us take pause,” she said, adding the initial laughter when she unveiled the bear last year has been superseded by a serious emphasis on customer.  

“What started as customer action then became a natural customer sitting at the table. And it’s not always me saying where is voice of the customer, or what would they think – it might be our chief supply officer. A couple of times, as we’ve gone to start a meeting, people have asked where is Scout,” she said.  

“Having little icons and reminders are key. It’s very easy in a corporate environment to get carried away with what we’re doing and not listen to the customer.”

2.Ramp up agility

For McNamara, the importance of agility during the COVID-19 can’t be overstated. She expressed it in two ways, the first around decision making.

“Particularly through COVID-19, we’d meet as an executive team every morning. We hadn’t normally done that,” she said. “It became much more every day, and we gained more appreciation for what each person is facing. That fosters a sense of agility, and knowing we don’t have time, a willingness to get the info we need and do it once, and do it well.”

Agility also manifested in the way Super Retail Group executed work across the business. Specifically, the notion of cross-functional teams became more important.

“There are elements we were used to employing – when running new projects or implementation – and we’d bring cross-functional teams together. In this time, that works really well across the board,” McNamara said. “Making those decisions quickly, getting the right people in the room, and also not too many people - just enough to take ownership and make decisions - has been important.

“We want to make sure we do harness, learn from and keep doing this in a post-COVID environment as well.”

3.Respond to customer trends

To ensure Super Retail Group kept up with changing customer expectations and behaviours, it firstly monitored macro trends, such as the economic impact of COVID-19, government stimulus packages and how these affect the business and demand shorter and longer term.

Other consumer trends McNamara cited included the shift to health and wellness, appreciation for spending more time with our families, and more domestic travel. “Longer-term, these pieces are shifting and we need to tailor how we think about customer to ensure we meet those trends,” she said.  

Another obvious shift was the massive acceleration to online retail, and it’s a trend McNamara agreed was here to stay post-COVID-19 lockdown.

“What really changed was how we found information and how we have been tapping into these customer insights in real time,” she explained. “We’ve always undertaken social listening, looked at what’s happening on the site, and what customers tell us in-store. We had to more closely look at that while also being much broader in our observations.”  

One important broader trend in social commentary was a clear feeling of ‘affiliation’. “So we thought how can we help with that?” McNamara asked.

A resulting initiative was the ‘BCF backyard campout’ at Easter time, which was supported by TV advertising and communications.

“What we thought was going to be a tiny thing with our customers and comms online tapped into something in the community and was on morning TV shows, news, all over social,” McNamara said.  “The lesson for us is people did see us as more than just as a place where you can buy your boating, campaign and fishing goods. It was an affiliation with the brand, and that sense of being part of the community.

“It was an acknowledgment from consumers that that’s important. But then for us as a retailer, it was about appreciating that and thinking how we can be part of that community. It’s been a real moment for us.”  

4.A sense of safety

A further trend impacting real-world behaviours which McNamara gave longevity to was providing a sense of safety in digital and physical spaces. In response to the crisis, Super Retail has had to change processes around many elements in physical stores, from change rooms to the checkout.

“That sense of safety is important not just for customers but also our team. It is absolutely present and needs to be present for the near future,” she said.  “It’s literally the hygiene factors, managing the space, ensuring team members know what to do, how to serve customers.”

More broadly, these changes raise the question of how the retail group continues to serve customers in physical and digital spaces.

“For example, our stores were still open in Australia through whole period, but number of customers was vastly diminished. Our investment in omnichannel paid off but we did need to change things,” McNamara said.  “The biggest example was click and collect, making it contact-free across hundreds of stores and setting it up online so customer could choose how to pick-up products. We made that tactical within a week. It was certainly unprecedented for us and agility became really important here.

“It’s also accepting sometimes the simplest solutions from a customer perspective are actually the easiest things to do. The customer journey is all important, but just it’s about being practical.

“Those are the pieces that will really sit with us over time.”  

5.Employee engagement

Employee engagement was McNamara’s final pillar, and she believed the notion of being distant from each other physically has seen teams work harder on building personal connection. The lesson here is making ways for employees to share with each other.

“When you have thousands of employees, they are so important. You can tell when someone walks into a store and the team isn’t happy. You feel it as a customer,” she added.  

“We strongly felt we needed to look after mental health of the team, safe place to work. You’ll never get it perfect, but we’ve been trying to make sure employees knew what was going on, that they’re all connected, and we have safe places for teams and customers. That will hold true post-COVID.”  

The new normal

As Australia stares down the next phase of living with the COVID-19 pandemic and new normal, McNamara didn’t see the pre-COVID time ever repeating itself.

“Elements we are shaping for in the future include being more agile, and keeping that value at the heard of our business decision-making,” she said. “As we go into this immediate post-COVID piece, there will be times when there will be spikes – we are seeing it in Australia right now. You have to ensure you continue to do the right things in that environment.

“We don’t need to go through the same processes we did upfront, but we need to make sure we can turn the handle quickly. Not forgetting about what we have been though, and clear systems and processes will help. But it’s also about listening, and not losing the customer either.”  

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia.  


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