Digital & IT

How Covid-19 has shown the digital potential of the physical home improvement store

JJ Van Oosten, Chief Customer and Digital Officer
On 7 July I took part in a webinar with the Financial Times, about how physical and digital retail can work better together to drive growth following the coronavirus pandemic. It enabled me to reflect on what we achieved at Kingfisher during the crisis, across all our retail banners, in a short space of time as we worked to make sure we could continue to meet our customers’ home improvement needs. Here are some of those reflections.
If you had told me in January 2020 that we would have accelerated some of our e-commerce plans by months, or even years, by the end of May, I wouldn’t have believed you. As we all know, change doesn’t always happen that quickly. But that was when Covid-19 wasn’t yet a global issue that would change the face of retail as we know it. Whilst our e-commerce activity grew exponentially, far from rendering physical stores obsolete, we have seen first-hand how our stores have become more integral to our business, not less.
As the seriousness of the pandemic grew and moved swiftly towards Europe, I remember having conversations at Kingfisher about our future e-commerce plans and whether our stores were going to be assets or liabilities to them. For me, they are 100% assets: located close to our customers, they are in the right places to serve them either physically, or digitally – as picking, collecting and delivery hubs – no matter where the financial transaction takes place.
A key element of our e-commerce plan, therefore, was to put our network of stores at the centre of it. We knew our stores could work harder to help us grow e-commerce penetration across the Group. We were also committed to working with greater agility and speed, to testing and learning as we went, rather than waiting for things to be ‘perfect’ before moving forward with them. Covid-19 soon became the unexpected testbed for our plans.
As a retailer of essential goods in all of our markets, we had to quickly adapt our whole shopping experience so that customers could purchase the items they needed during lockdown. But we know that online shopping for home improvement has been relatively small in recent years. The industry as a whole has been slow to adapt and push the boundaries of what can be sold online. Would our customers come with us on this sudden journey of change?
Keeping the safety of our colleagues and customers top of mind, our teams across the business really rose to the challenge and the results speak for themselves. We flexed our store spaces to become ‘micro-fulfilment Centres’ or ‘Dark Stores’ from which we could pick online orders for click & collect and home deliveries. We saw online sales grow up to fourfold from mid-March, and in the last week of June alone, our customers placed 1.5 million online orders. Yes, in the early days of lockdowns we had to implement online queueing systems, and we had queues around carparks, but that meant that our customers were shopping in these new ways, despite the circumstances. We even sold bedding plants online for the first time.
Since reopening our physical stores to customers from April onwards, and since more restrictions have been lifted in our markets, our stores are clearly places that customers want to visit: they are returning to stores to look at and touch products, to plan their projects and get advice and ideas from our colleagues about how to complete them, albeit from behind a mask or visor. We know that some customers can’t or don’t wish to visit a physical store yet, so we’ve also implemented online design consultations for kitchens and bathrooms for them.
No matter how quickly we can pick a home delivery or click & collect order made via a mobile or laptop, or rival our competitors’ speeds at doing the same, a home improvement project is an emotional investment. It will always be more than just a financial transaction on a website or mobile phone. And we know that not everyone wants a design service by video call. For the emotional side of home improvement, where our customers need our stores, we will be there for them.
We may have accelerated and proven our e-commerce plans since the onset of Covid-19, but for the foreseeable future, our stores will be at the centre of them.