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UPDATED Coronavirus round-up: Supermarkets expand delivery capability fast, plus Debenhams, ScS, WH Smith, John Lewis and the ONS on Covid-19

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We’re reporting on the effect of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic on the way UK shoppers buy – and on how retailers are responding to that changing behaviour. This update comes as 51,608 positive cases have been confirmed by Public Health England as of 9am on April 6 and 5,373 people have died. Daily figures show 3,802 cases and 439 deaths over the previous 24 hours.

How supermarkets have expanded online delivery to meet pandemic demand

Demand to buy groceries online has risen sharply as shoppers self-isolate and work from home. 

We take a look at what the supermarkets are doing to expand their online delivery in the face of higher demand – and at some of the other steps they are taking to protect staff and customers in-store. Read the full story here.

InPost sees rising demand for locker deliveries


Parcel locker provider InPost says use of its lockers tripled in March compared to February as social distancing measures meant more customers and small businesses used the contact-free service to send parcels.

Now InPost has launched its Next Day Send service in conjunction with parcel broker websites including Parcel2Go, Interparcel and the company’s direct service InPost Direct. 

InPost is also expanding its nationwide network of lockers and over the next six months plans to increase its presence to more than 1,000 locations with more than 70,000 lockers across the country.

Jason Tavaria, chief executive of InPost, said: “During these unprecedented times, we want to help both personal and business customers to continue to stay connected to their communities. The surge in demand demonstrates how InPost lockers are offering a 24/7, contact-free way for people to send and receive the items they need to, safely and at a time that works for them.

Our Next Day Send service now means customers can get their products and packages to their customers or loved ones as quickly as possibly at a time of need.”

Digital Goodie aims to help retailers sell from store quickly

Digital Goodie, the company behind the headless commerce platform of the same name, is launching a rapid response project that it says will help retailers to pick more of their online orders from store. It will also help those that don’t yet sell online.

Currently, it says, food retailers are struggling with higher online sales as more shoppers opt to buy online. Some of its clients, it says, have seen online sales volumes triple within days. 

It says that those using its rapid response initiative will be able to get online in as little as two weeks, using its software for store picking, click and collect and home delivery. 

“Many consumers are struggling to get hold of essential everyday items during this exceptional time, both in physical and online retail,” said Tomas Granö, director, sales and marketing at Digital Goodie. “Despite an increasing number of customers unwilling, or unable, to visit crowded brick and mortar stores and therefore turning to ecommerce, they’re also experiencing long virtual queues or no online delivery slots; exacerbating their frustration. This is because multiple grocery retailers are struggling with fulfilment capacity, an area we have seen demand surge tenfold with existing customers. As a result, retailers need to be optimising all of their sales channels to help deliver a reliable service in these uncertain times. That’s why we’re offering grocery retailers the ability to fast-track their business online and optimise fulfilment processes; to provide peace of mind. They can rapidly scale up fulfilment capacity, keep providing excellent service to customers and also protect their staff during this time of crisis.”

Wilko launches community fund, while stores stay open

Wilko has donated 160,000 Easter eggs to NHS workers and those in need as well as launching a £125,000 community fund to support schools, food banks, animal shelters and the elderly. 

Its support centre staff are to work with the Alzheimer’s Society to run services that provide regular calls to people who may feel isolated or lonely during the lockdown. It will also be raising money for the society as well as Save the Children and Teenage Cancer Trust. 

Jerome Saint-Marc, Wilko chief executive, said: “We know this crisis is hitting those who are already vulnerable the hardest. So we’re focusing our community work particularly on families and the elderly, ensuring they’ve access to essential non-food items. We’re so grateful to the NHS staff and frontline key workers up and down the country who are working tirelessly to keep the nation safe and hope our small gesture of an Easter chocolate gift will let them know how much the nation appreciates them.”

Wilko’s 415 stores are currently open for shoppers to buy non-food essentials. The retailer says they provide a high street-based alternative to high demand grocers.

Tesco is to open new NHS Nightingale pop-up shop

Tesco has started work on building a pop-up shop at the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the NEC in Birmingham. Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis said in an update that work began on Sunday and the store is expected to be open by the end of next week. It is also in discussion with other Nightingale sites and says it hopes “that this is the first of several pop-up Tesco stores to help NHS staff access the essentials they need, as quickly and conveniently as possible.”

WH Smith raises fresh financing to combat Covid-19

WH Smith today (Tuesday) said it had raised £165.9m by issuing more than 15m new shares – equal to 13.7% of its share capital. The high street and travel retailer said yesterday that the fundraising step was a condition of arranging new lending facilities worth £120m to strengthen its balance sheet, working capital and cash liquidity. This comes at a time when it has seen a “substantial downturn in economic activity resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic” – and there is uncertainty as to how long that downturn will continue. As a condition of that new lending, it has agreed to place up to 13.7% of its share capital through a stockmarket placing. These steps, it said, “will provide sufficient liquidity to deal with this most challenging of trading environments.”

Debenhams steps closer to second administration in a year

Debenhams has today filed its intent to appoint administrators, in a move that it says will protect it from being forced into liquidation while its 142 UK stores are closed in line with government Covid-19 advice. Here’s the full story. 

ScS suspends interim dividend and chief executive postpones retirement

Sofa and floorings retailer ScS Group announced today (Monday) its decision to suspend an interim dividend that was to have been paid on May 7. It said the scheduled payment to shareholders seemed “inappropriate” at a time when the government was supporting those of its workers that are furloughed. The retailer has also kept some staff working in order to provide customer support. 

Chief executive David Knight has agreed to postpone his retirement until at least July 2021, and the retailer said in today’s update that the group was as well positioned as it could be to withstand the impact of Covid-19, with a strong balance sheet and flexible costs and that it would continue to assess when the right time to restore dividends would be.

WH Smith raises fresh financing to combat Covid-19

WH Smith today (Monday) confirmed it was to raise money through a share placing as it puts new lending in place. 

The high street and travel retailer said that it was arranging new lending facilities worth £120m to strengthen its balance sheet, working capital and cash liquidity at a time when it has seen a “substantial downturn in economic activity resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic” – and there is uncertainty as to how long that downturn will continue. As a condition of that new lending, it has agreed to place up to 13.7% of its share capital through a stockmarket placing. These steps, it said, “will provide sufficient liquidity to deal with this most challenging of trading environments.”

John Lewis Partnership thanks staff with extra payments

The John Lewis Partnership is to pay staff an extra £25 for every week they work in April and May in order to recognise the way in which they have gone above and beyond, working both in Waitrose supermarkets and to support John Lewis online. The payment, to be made to both non-management staff and first level managers, represents about 11% of the average full-time non-management partners’s weekly wage.

The partnership is also increasing the partnership discount in Waitrose to 25%, from 15% previously, during the pandemic. Once the peak of the pandemic is over, that discount will remain permanently at 20%. This adds to measures that already include free meals for staff and a support fund to help those who are are seeing their costs rise as a result of the pandemic, for example in childcare costs. 

Sharon White, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said: “Partners have made significant sacrifices to ensure that we are able to continue to serve and support our customers. The measures that we have announced today are in recognition of their hard work and commitment and are part of a wider package of support available to help partners during this extraordinary time. I want to extend my continued thanks to every partner. It is a privilege to be their chairman.” 

Business turnover and staff down, online prices slightly up: ONS Covid-19 study

A new ONS study, Business Impact of Coronavirus (Covid-19) Survey, found that 45% of the 3,642 businesses that responded said their turnover was lower than expected between March 9 and 22. More than a quarter (27%) said they were reducing staff levels short term and 5% said they were taking staff on for the short term. Just under half (46%) said they had encouraged staff to work from home over the period. Among the businesses where import/export was relevant, 57% of importers and 59% of exporters said trade had been affected by Covid-19. Online prices of high-demand products were up by 1.1% between March 23 and 29 compared to the previous week, of March 16.  

Commenting on the findings, 
Chris Biggs, managing director of Theta Financial Reporting, said: “These figures from the first ONS Business Impact of Coronavirus Survey reveal some startling but not surprising results, with businesses across many industries including hospitality, travel and high-street retail taking a substantial hit over the last month. Businesses must try and maintain their normal activities in order to prevent any further disruption to them, their supply chains and their employees. 

“However, from this, particularly for professional service workers and those who normally work in an office day-in-day-out, this period may present some opportunities after this period passes. Looking back, we will remember this period as simply ‘business as usual’ as employees work more flexibly at home, work can be completed as effectively away from the desk as at it, and more virtual offices than we have ever previously experienced.

This is why businesses need to recognise and embrace how we are currently having to work as the new ‘norm’ and where they can continue as they normally would. Whether that be delivering services, fulfilling orders or speaking to clients, this form of flexible working will be the norm long after the Covid-19 crisis passes.”

Image courtesy of Waitrose

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