by Joanne Carew

Why South African retailer Woolworths is embracing omnichannel commerce

Aug 29, 2021
IT Strategy

As consumers increasingly demand choice and flexibility, here’s what Woolworths is doing to create an omnichannel commerce experience that works.

Liz Hillock
Credit: Liz Hillock

With the rapid rise of e-commerce in Africa due to the pandemic, omnichannel commerce has really taken centre stage for retailers. While the term may have been around for about a decade, new dynamics in the global retail industry in 2020 have driven retailers to invest much more rapidly in their omnichannel capabilities.

Liz Hillock is head of online and mobile, leading digital marketing at Woolworths, a South African multinational retail company. During the pandemic, the food, fashion, beauty and homeware retailer had to launch some big, and some not-so-big, initiatives to improve the experience they offered to their customers.

Modern consumers want to be able to shop on their computers, on their phones, in store and in their car; they want to option to shop for themselves, and have things delivered to their door or click and collect. The modern omnichannel experience needs to cater to the all of these customers.

In this Q&A, Hillock explains how the pandemic accelerated the brand’s omnichannel strategy, demanding that the retail brand find news way to give their customers a great experience.

CIO Africa: What technology initiatives is Woolworths focussing on right now?

Hillock: With such a broad product offering, prioritising the most important initiatives within the business can be tricky. We have a number of large-scale initiatives in play, such as rollout of our new point-of-sale across the country. At the same time, we’ve also launched lots of smaller innovations in an agile and iterative way, which have made a significant impact on our customers’ shopping experience. Some of these include the recent launch of our virtual W-Cellar wine club, Woolies Dash our on-demand delivery, Virtual Try on for Beauty, Virtual Beauty consultations, as well as AI driven Recommendations, Ratings and Reviews.

CIO Africa: How have Woolworths’ customers changed in recent years?  

Hillock: COVID-19 accelerated the shift to customer engagement over digital channels. Shopping patterns are increasingly non-linear. Customers want to be able to weave between our app, our website, our stores and our social media channels. Whether they buy online or in-store is a personal choice. It’s our job is to make it easy to shop in any way that suits them.  

CIO Africa: What emerging technologies helped you to handle the disruption caused by COVID-19?  

Hillock: Managing heightened demand for online shopping and, at the same time, managing issues such as absenteeism of staff due to isolation or illness, was difficult and at times caused disruptions in service levels. We’ve introduced new services at speed, such as Click and Collect. This offering was incorporated into our website in just three weeks during the initial stages of lockdown last year. We have so many projects on the go. Much of our focus right now centres around figuring out how to build a digital roadmap that includes a broad portfolio of initiatives; some quick wins and some large and complex. One of the exciting new initiatives we’ve launched is Virtual Try On for Beauty. Pandemic regulations dictate that customers are unable to try on make-up within a store and so they are increasingly shopping online. In May, we launched a virtual try-on tool on our site that allows customers to upload a photo, or use their live camera, to try on our colour beauty brands online, in real-time. In order to expand this to a truly omnichannel experience, we’ve also introduced NFC “tapable” technology as a pilot in our V&A and Table Bay stores. This means that customers wanting to try on make-up virtually simply need to tap the NFC tag and it instantly links them to the correct product, which they can test out online. This initiative is a first for a retailer in SA and we’re seeing amazing results.

CIO Africa: How are you using emerging tech to meet changes in customer needs/expectations? 

Hillock: Not all of our technology innovations are digital. Woolies always strives to deliver the freshest food products and it’s something that our customers have grown to expect from us. When we were conceptualising our on-demand food delivery service, Woolies Dash, we needed to solve the cold-chain challenge in before we could launch to market. While there are many lightweight cooler bags on the market, they did not meet our cold chain standards. We scoured the globe and ended up developing an extremely lightweight and flexible cooler, with technology within its material that keeps the temperature of our goods at the required levels.  We’re the first and only retailer to offer a cold-chain solution as part of an on-demand service in South Africa.

CIO Africa: As a woman in a tech field, do you have any advice for other women who’d like to pursue a similar career?

Hillock: There are so many incredible female digital and e-commerce leads in South Africa, reach out and make contact. Spend your precious time working with a company that not only values diversity, but also actively encourages it. I’m always inspired that our CEO is a woman, and a woman of colour. It was actually one of the reasons I joined Woolworths, as diversity is a non-negotiable for me.  

CIO Africa: What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders?

Hillock: People pioneer change. Technology is just an enabler. In digital, change feels infinite. As much as the energy from a fast-paced industry can inspire excellent work, it can also create a lot of anxiety for teams. The more we can equip ourselves and our teams to adapt to change, and to expect change, the easier it becomes to create a culture that is efficient and focused.