Published on the 21/07/2021 | Written by Heather Wright
Keeping business and IT aligned…
Foodstuffs North Island has an aspiration: To help New Zealanders get more out of life by being one of the most customer-driven organisations in the world.
It’s no small aspiration. But for Simon Kennedy, Foodstuffs North Island’s chief digital officer, it’s a key pillar not just in helping drive his 280 strong internal IT team and informing their work, but in ensuring a powerful, cross-functional collaborative approach to technology across the business.
“It’s a key pillar in starting to see things through the same lens and then when you get into more detail around what the technology might be you are linking it back to a common frame of reference for everyone,” Kennedy says.
“We will always be able to think up more opportunities than we have capacity to execute.”
Kennedy is responsible for all of the team looking after all of the technology – both enterprise systems and customer facing offerings – across Foodstuffs North Island’s three retail banners of PAK’nSAVE, New World and Four Square, as well as the Gilmours wholesale operation.
It’s a role he relishes, saying he enjoys the breadth, and that to some extent the completeness of the role makes it easier.
“There is no doubt as to where responsibilities and accountabilities lie. It’s pretty much if you plug it in or a customer touches it and its technology, then it’s in my world and we look after it.”
While the aspiration of being one of the most customer-driven organisations might be the big driver, Kennedy has four key outcomes his team aspires to: Having a good digital and physical experience for customers; being a data powered organisation; automating and optimising for cost; and being a world class technology team.
It’s the area of being a data powered organisation which Kennedy believes has seen the most progress in terms of the whole business understanding the concept and working together around it.
In fact, he says for most in the business the largest data programme – the Acting on Customer Insights programme – isn’t even viewed as a technology offering.
“We have a business-wide programme around that customer-driven strategy and a big part of that is how we can do more to act on customer insight to really understand what customers are telling us and then drive that understanding and insight back into our operational decisions so the best possible proposition shows up for our customers.
“Data is an absolute, almost a foundation element of it, but it is a business programme that everyone across the organisation is involved in. It just happens to have a lot of technology enablement in it.
“You talk to people around the organisation and they wouldn’t think ‘that’s a systems programme we’re doing’. It’s a business programme and it is about customers, but it is using data to power those insights.”
Pushing the leading edge
For Foodstuffs North Island, there are data points aplenty, with 315 stores in the co-operative, and reams of products, customers and transactions. The Acting on Customer Insights programme has seen the business design and create a single customer view, with data anonymised where needed, harnessing that data, enriching and processing it and running it through the tools to get rich insights to enable those who are making decisions.
The retailer works with Dunnhumby, a global customer data science company, whose set of tools effectively bring some data science to bear on Foodstuffs North Island’s operational and customer data.
But those tools are only as powerful as the quality and completeness of the data driven into them, and Kennedy and his team have put in the work to identify, organise and set up the ongoing data feeds into Dunnhumby’s tools. It’s work he says is having ‘an absolute direct benefit into the insights and other outcomes we can get back out of those tools’.
For customers, it means increasingly relevant offers, product ranges targeted to each store’s customer base, and customised store layouts. While Foodstuffs’ cooperative structure, with local store owners, brings local knowledge and entrepreneurial flair in each store and community connection, the customer insights programme enables the company to back that with data science.
The Dunnhumby tools employ AI and machine learning, technologies Kennedy sees as being increasingly important for enhancing customer experiences and managing the customer journey. The company is also harnessing machine learning in its transport optimisation offerings and has AI in use working through verbatim customer comments in surveys and extracting key narratives.
“As we work through those kind of data-powered programmes it’s driving a general increase in and understanding of quality and power of data. When you have got that source data that improves the business case for bringing in the AI type technologies,” Kennedy says.
“We’re still almost in the foothills of that whole journey. But AI and ML’s role is pretty broad because it is well suited to the environment where there are large amounts of data and a dynamic decision landscape.”
Also in early work is robotics process automation. Just two years into its RPA work, using UiPath, Foodstuffs North Island has just clicked passed 26,000 hours of annual time saved.
Work so far has been largely in the financial and administrative space with the likes of invoice processing and credit handling, but Kennedy sees a much bigger future for the bots.
“There is a lot more to come there. In some ways we are just beginning.”
Foodstuffs RPA capability sits within the digital workplace team where Kennedy believes there’s a ‘reasonably neat adjacency’ between the likes of Microsoft Teams, Flow and the skills and outlook needed around RPA.
Also falling within the automate and optimise for cost programme is a major supply chain project, deploying a new technology suite – both a warehouse management system and a transport management system – based on Blue Yonder.
New software was implemented into each of the company’s distribution centres but the big project was the building of a new distribution centre in Auckland, complete with the underlying infrastructure, network, WiFi, security and management platforms for devices.
It’s a project Kennedy is proud of, even if it’s one that passed under the radar for many.
“There was a lot of extremely high-quality effort behind the scenes, but it’s one of those technology achievements where if no one notices it’s been a fantastic effort because there was no disruption.”
He’s also proud of the way Foodstuffs North Island’s systems coped with the massive surges, variability and supply chain disruptions brought about by Covid last year.
“We had to do some stuff for sure, but from a front-end point of view pretty much it did what it was supposed to do in automatically scaling out in using those cloud architectures, and the back-end remained robust.
Foodstuffs North Island’s retail ecommerce is on Sitecore’s platform, with Salesforce used in wholesale. (Salesforce is also used for the service centre, while the company’s core is SAP, which provides the ERP backbone including inventory, ordering, finance and reporting, as well as the HRIS.)
Helping the supply chain and merchandising teams manage both the extreme volumes and unpredictability of Covid was where the SAP backbone, combined with the investment in the Blue Yonder warehouse and transport management systems, came to the fore.
“I think credit to my team, because that stuff doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because there has been investment and care and good processes and maintenance.”
Less dramatic, but critical to the ongoing customer experience, is the continuous improvement journey Foodstuffs North Island is taking to ‘join up’ its digital and physical experiences.
The company has a digital strategy for each brand which sees it releasing features, sprint by sprint, into the web and app offerings, increasingly integrating the physical and digital experiences with things such as the ability to capture and manage lists and helping customers find things in store or check products.
On the wholesale side, a simple move to digitise Gilmours previously somewhat cumbersome sign-up process for the cash and carry business, has proved a win-win for customers and business. The digitisation of the process has provided a much faster, easier experience for customers, enabling them to get shopping faster, while significantly reducing the number of calls to customer service around Gilmours signups.
As to the future, Kennedy says Foodstuffs like most vendors is faced with the challenge of where to invest its time, focus and effort. Which brings us neatly back to the company’s aspiration to become one of the most customer driven organisations.
“We will always be able to think up and ideate and create more opportunities for how we are going to move there than we are going to have capacity to execute, so how do we work well across our leadership, across our business as a whole to make those right decisions of choosing the right number of things to go after, neither too few or too many, with the right resource at the right pace?
“If you are using those customer promises as the key lens through which to choose where you are going to focus on, what your priorities are going to be and where you are going to put your effort then everything should line up across the business.”