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AO chief executive John Roberts on how the retailer has navigated the Covid-19 pandemic

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When Covid-19 hit the UK, was able to respond as shopping quickly shifted further online because over its 20-year history it was built “for the future”, its founder and chief executive John Roberts has said.

During the pandemic lockdown customers quickly moved to do more of their shopping online, and, suggests AO’s Roberts, speaking to InternetRetailing editor-in-chief Ian Jindal at a recent IRX Engage online event, habits changed for good during that time. “Five years has collapsed down into five weeks,” he said. “It takes 66 days to form a habit and stores have been locked down for 84.” 

AO parent company AO World said in a May trading statement that 100% of electricals sales moved online during the lockdown, and that it had seen market share and sales across all categories as a reuslt. In the IRX Engage event, he said that doing business during the pandemic, says Roberts, had become “enormously complicated” but throughout it had been important that staff used good judgement around whether to offer delivery, and whether to add services such as installation to those deliveries. “What you need is tonnes of flexibility. For the first two or three weeks, we didn’t offer services unless, if it was Mrs Miggins, she’s 83, she’s on the 14th floor, and she keeps her insulin in her fridge freezer, well a doorstep delivery is not as good for her. We need our drivers to exercise judgement that the right thing in that situation is to get that fridge freezer in, plugged in and get the old one out. You can’t put that on an order form online.”

Roberts, who famously founded the white goods business – now ranked Top50 in RXUK Top500 research – for a £1 bet in 1999, says AO has been well-placed to navigate the crisis. “We’re a business that’s built for the future and not trying to repurpose from a business from the past,” he said. He added: “It’s much more of the same, harder and faster. How do we put lots of extra logistics capability in? Well, we know how to do that. We do that through the difference between the low of February trading and the high of Black Friday. In terms of serving customers this is the time to have a deeply investive culture in a business and not a time to build one. I say we’re fortunate but I don’t think we’re fortunate – we have invested in that for over 20 years and it pays back in times like this.”

Two principles, he says, are at the core of how the business works: treat every single customer as if they were your brand, and, ask, would your decisions make your mum proud? “Every mum has a barometer,” he said, “but if you tell her something you know how she’s going to look at you, and you think about that when you are making the decision. If people just genuinely live those two principles, then loads of other stuff just takes care of itself so in these real moments when things happen, we have this sort of immune system as a business that just deals with things.” 

“We have a deep philosophical belief that the best service is the most profitable service,” he said. He added: “If you don’t create problems you don’t have to have call centres to deal with those problems, if you deliver on time the customer won’t chase you, if you communicate brilliantly with a customer through text, tracking and tracing then you can deal with them in a much more scalable, automated way. It’s always been the case that we’ve only ever had one standard of service.”

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