The Shoprite Group is constantly investing in initiatives to expand the range of digital offerings they have available for their customers, says Group CIO David Cohn. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it was clear that they needed to ramp up their efforts.
From expanding the footprint and scale of their on-demand grocery delivery service, Checkers Sixty60, to the launch of virtual grocery vouchers to help those in need during the national lockdown, the retail brand leveraged mobile tech, cloud, and their existing ERP systems to meet customers where they were: locked down.
In this Q&A, Cohn discusses how the Shoprite Group has adopted emerging technology and explains why innovation isn’t always about building new technology.
What emerging technologies have you adopted to handle the pandemic?
The Shoprite Group’s IT department had a trial lockdown a week before the rest of the business, and the country, went into hard lockdown. This was done to test the group’s infrastructure and systems to facilitate working remotely.
As collaboration platforms and tools were already in place it was easy to tweak this and to apply the same principles for the rest of the business. We constantly scan the horizon for new technologies and innovations and this paid off for us during lockdown.
Although we mostly relied on existing technologies, the group also invested in improving its video-conferencing abilities and made extensive use of collaboration boards. We implemented telecommuting and leveraged work management tools for virtual big-room planning. New digital dashboards were published and VPN access was extended to all staff working remotely. The cybersecurity team hardened our security perimeter as we moved over 2,000 employees to working remotely.
Tell us about the Checkers Sixty60 app?
Sixty60 is way more than just a customer-facing app. The back end connects to a custom-built, on-demand e-commerce platform, which is the real brains behind the 60-minute delivery promise. The system is based on a microservices design deployed in the cloud using containerisation technology (Kubernetes). This design enabled us to quickly scale this service to meet the exponential increase in customer demand.
The speed of growth that Sixty60 experienced tends to reveal any potential weaknesses in the overall technical landscape. To cope with this, our teams invested time in the technical enablers that allow us to scale at pace; including site reliability engineering and a store rollout framework.
It’s important to note that Sixty60 has seen significant success, in part, because it was supported by the Shoprite Group’s massive enterprise systems. These include our POS systems and stock, product, and pricing from our ERP systems. Store picking is enabled by always-on networks and our financial systems enable secure payments.
Like most projects, there were challenges in refining the business operations, handling the transaction volumes, providing customers with alternative options, and so on. But that is what makes our work so interesting and rewarding — being able to pull the right people together to solve those problems and help our customers to experience the best whenever they shop with us.
Agility and speed were key, as was using the technology we already had to create something new. It shows what can be done when you have the power and stability of the enterprise behind you and you’re agile in how you deliver what your customers need.
What was the idea behind your virtual grocery vouchers?
During the first (hard) lockdown from March to about May 2020, the Shoprite Group wanted to help people send food and grocery vouchers to those in need in a safe and secure way.
At that point, Computicket, the largest ticketing service provider in South Africa, was unable to trade because no events were allowed to take place, so we used their technology team and platform to support this initiative. This is another example where we leveraged what the group had to create something new. In this case, we went from concept to live in less than a week, further developing Computicket’s existing payment gateway and expanding on that by using a partner to run the voucher vault.
Innovation isn’t always about building new tech. It is just as important to be able to solve problems in a unique way, using what you have at hand.
You’re also using, and looking into, other key innovations. Can you tell us more about this?
The thing to keep in mind with so many new technologies is that we constantly have to filter out which technologies are just buzzwords and which are really worth exploring. This is especially important in a big organization that has to employ these technologies at scale and within a specific budget.
Our technology R&D capability identifies which technologies are mature enough to explore, and many are not always viable outside the lab in the real world, be it in operations, ways of working, automation, or customer-facing interaction.
We are particularly excited by machine vision — we see big leaps in this capability and we are exploring where in the business we can apply this exciting technology for the biggest impact. Combine it with automation, and the way in which retail operations will work will be very different in future.
What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned throughout your career that might be beneficial for our readers?
Your success lies in the hands of your team. Your people are the most important asset that you have; look after them. Also, technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Technology changes must always ultimately benefit the customer.
Don’t panic. In most instances it is more beneficial to take the time to properly understand and assess a situation than jumping in too quickly. I believe that blaming people achieves nothing. Accountability is, however, critical. Every process and system needs an owner who has full accountability for ensuring success and to whom you make all the necessary tools and resources available to achieve that success.
What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders?
Don’t ignore maintenance — both technical debt and personal maintenance (taking care of yourself). Sometimes maintenance is tough and difficult to justify in the pressure of day-to-day delivery, but it is the most important thing you can do.