Keells prioritises safety amidst avalanche of orders
3 years ago
• Online ordering system receives over 4,000 orders
• Company plans to scale up and improve online deliveries
By Uwin Lugoda
Similar to hospitals and other emergency services, supermarkets have been a focal point of conversation during the Covid-19 global pandemic, as the public race to empty shelves amid fears of shortages during the lockdown in many of the countries affected by the virus. This same sort of panic was seen in Sri Lanka, where scores of images of emptied supermarket shelves was shared on social media on 13 March, a week before the Government imposed a nationwide curfew. Staple food items such as rice and canned goods were prioritised on shopping lists as people crowded local supermarkets. Due to this, the outbreak has placed unprecedented strain on supermarket retailers islandwide, as they are now tasked with ensuring the availability of essential goods and the safety of both their employees and customers. This in turn meant that supermarket retailers had to implement new rules to ensure public safety and allow other customers a fair chance at purchasing supplies. These rules were put in place during the temporary removal of the curfew on 23 and 24 March, when the public rushed to supermarkets to buy essential goods, creating queues with some spanning the length of over two or three kilometres, according to eyewitness accounts. Following this, the Government proposed a plan for these retailers to arrange home delivery of essential goods to curb the Covid-19 pandemic by controlling the crowds. The Sunday Morning Business sat down with John Keells Holdings President of Retail Charitha Subasinghe to speak about the current situation and the steps they have taken to ensure everyone’s safety. The John Keells Group owns Keells Super, one of the largest supermarket chains in the country with outlets in 97 locations. Customer safety According to Subasinghe, Keells Super has taken several key measures to ensure customer safety at its outlets, including an increase in the frequency of cleaning of public spaces, including trolley and basket handles, which was implemented on 17 March, and placing hand sanitiser in visible locations for the customers to use and hand-washing facilities at certain other locations. He also explained that during the 23 and 24 March temporary lift of the curfew, they worked on reducing the number of customers in a store at any given time to 15 persons and requested that customers maintain a distance of one metre both outside the store as well as inside. Employee safety Subasinghe stated that they have taken every possible measure to ensure the safety of their staff. “The safety of our staff is of paramount importance to us and we have taken every possible measure to also procure the necessary masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser to ensure our team members are safe.” He went on to state that some of the key measures to safeguard their team members included providing staff with face masks and hand sanitiser, providing checkout counter staff with gloves, ensuring meals are provided to all their staff, and continuously educating them and creating awareness via internal communication channels about how to protect themselves. Subasinghe stated that during the early stages of the curfew, the company had issued a trilingual awareness flyer to the staff stating the key points on how to be safe and the possible symptoms. These flyers were sent out via email and shared via the company’s employee communication channels so that the staff were aware of how to take the necessary precautions, what the symptoms of Covid-19 are, and what they should do if they suspected they were suffering from Covid-19. “We also went on to raise awareness on procedures pertaining to being safe whilst delivering goods to a customer’s house and made sure our staff members took adequate breaks.” Subasinghe stated that the company is also currently working on obtaining temperature-checking equipment for their staff as a precautionary measure. Deliveries Subasinghe stated that the company has been making deliveries to the best of their ability to customers who place orders directly with them via their website. At the same time, he stated, they have also been working together with Ceylon Cold Stores and the Government to dispatch packed essential items to be sold in areas identified by the respective government agents. “As of 29 March 2020, close to 1,500 of these packs were sold in the areas of Kolonnawa, Colombo North, Jayewardenepura, Dehiwala, and Embuldeniya. Plans are underway to reach farther areas with a larger quantity of essential packs.” Their online ordering system was activated over a week ago, and according to Subasinghe, it received close to 12,300-plus orders as of 3 April, improving from 1,000 to 4,000 daily. They have also enhanced their delivery grid from six to 26 stores in order to offer wider area coverage. “We managed customer expectations by being forthright with the essential goods available for purchase and we conveyed to the customers that we take only a limited number of orders per day, and also the expected delivery period and the locations catered to.” He went on to state that they do understand that customers have faced issues in ordering items online, however stated that they will continue to do their best to improve it and scale up their operations overall whenever possible. “All deliveries have been delivered within the 48-hour delivery timeline so far, and the customers who received it have expressed appreciation and gratitude for the professional service rendered. Moreover, whilst we expand this operation, we are also keeping in mind to undertake only what can be delivered, as a responsible corporate.” Speaking of the challenges they faced when implementing the delivery service, Subasinghe stated that the sheer volume of traffic on the site had been unprecedented since the day it became active and both their vendors and IT teams are working round the clock to ensure the site remains active. Subasinghe explained that another challenge they faced is capacity in terms of manpower and that currently they are operating with only one-third of their staff, given the current situation in the country; to pick up the orders, bill them, pack them, and dispatch them. He explained that in Sri Lanka, 20% of the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and retail markets consist of modern retail stores, to which supermarkets belong; the rest consist of over 250,000 small neighbourhood shops. So as at now, the supermarkets are in an unenviable position, trying to cater to almost 100% of the demand and hence, understandably, causing the rising frustration of consumers. “Aligning ourselves with the relevant Government directives, the safety of our people in the frontlines has been one of our primary concerns. As such, some of our staff members who were working at stores away from their hometowns have returned home to their families, similar to the rest of us who prioritise our wellbeing and that of our loved ones. “Regrettably, we are now working with one-third of the human resources through which we operated our stores before. However, our teams have been nothing short of amazing during these days, trying their best to deliver to our customers. Even members of the armed forces have been working behind the scenes to ensure customers’ orders get delivered.” He went on to state that initially, the company also faced issues in obtaining curfew passes for their delivery vehicles and staff, but this has since been ironed out and has even led them to work with third-party vendors who came forward to provide delivery services. Finally, Subasinghe assured that as of now, their supply chain isn’t facing any shortages; as long as manufacturers continue to provide goods and the produce reaches them from the farms. He went on to explain that certain imported items will see shortages due to the current situation, but overall, Keells Super, along with their suppliers, are trying their best to maintain an uninterrupted supply chain to cater to customer needs.