Physical to digital during COVID-19

By Simon Birch - Head of Retail, Appreciate Group

March is the month of year-end for Appreciate Group. It’s when we reflect on the year, bring accounts to a close and chase outstanding sales quotes, to ensure that budgets are beaten, and targets exceeded. This year was no different. Business as usual. All channels to market operating, as they should be. The security and comfort of being in control, knowing what to do next and which part of the strategic plan is next to implement.

Then the Prime Minister made an announcement on 23rd March.

Overnight, there was an exponential increase in people working from home due to the lockdown. Offices, shops, pubs closed, everything became remote in a heartbeat and online shopping surged by 60% in April in the UK alone (according to the British Retail Consortium).

During 2019, Appreciate Group had already embarked on a journey of digital transformation, which involved the implementation of Office 365 and cloud-based infrastructure as well as providing all of our office-based staff with the appropriate devices to work effectively from any location.

This meant that when the pandemic struck a lot of the infrastructure, application and data groundwork had already been done so, for us, the transition to remote working proved to be relatively seamless. Sustaining this fundamental shift has become part of the learning experience for us and our infrastructure providers!

However, COVID-19 posed some real challenges, especially for our physical fulfilment team who clearly can’t do their jobs from home – the processes of secure storage, organising, picking, packing and dispatching orders of our physical Love2shop gift cards and voucher and single store gift cards isn’t something you can remotely achieve. To protect our colleagues, we decided to temporarily close our physical fulfilment centre while we worked on adapting the workplace environment to ensure social distancing and proper personal safety measures could be put in place.

Whilst ecodes are a familiar product within the B2B channels, B2C was a different story. Not all consumers where familiar with the product or the concept. Very few brands were selling B2C due to the fraud risk.

Appreciate Group’s website, predominantly sold physical gift cards. This meant that one of our three channels to market had been immobilised overnight.

We looked at how we could continue to support our customers across all of our existing channels, as well as some new ones, and began to accelerate the deployment of digital gifting and reward products. We wanted to understand the needs of all our customers, ensure we mitigate their risks in these uncertain times and, from a business perspective, maximise the opportunities to be there supporting customers when they need us most – whether giving, receiving or experiencing. It has been a real catalyst for us, and, as a business, we haven’t looked back.

Purpose-driven solutions

Our industry has seen a significant move from physical products to digital products over the last four to five years, and we’ve seen rapid acceleration in the last two years in particular.

We monitor the market landscape daily and innovation is central to our growth, so we’ve been focused on the digital transformation of our business for some time.

It’s why we had already developed and launched innovative products within the market including Giftli and the Select Digital Gift Card in collaboration with CleverCards and Mastercard.

But to keep up with the needs of our customers during lockdown we knew we had to do more. We wanted to help people doing their food shopping online or by asking others to shop on their behalf. We wanted to help people celebrate birthdays and special occasions without being able to see loved ones. We wanted to help people show their friends, families and colleagues they were still thinking about them and that they care when they can’t actually be there in person. Being remote doesn’t mean being removed.

This led to genuine company-wide collaboration, and it helped us to develop new solutions for our customers more quickly than at any other time in our history. All parts of the business aligned and, together, we worked towards a clear goal.

We were able to set up partnerships with brands ranging from supermarkets and gaming, to takeaways and home improvements. We worked in collaboration with and experienced true partnerships from companies such as Tillo, We Gift, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Iceland.

After we temporarily closed our fulfilment centre, we managed to launch a completely new product range with a new e-commerce checkout process within a week; a tremendous team effort to turn around a large-scale project in a matter of days. Since then we have gone on to add dozens of digital products each week including a brand-new multi-retail product – the Love2shop e-Gift Card.

Our website now has a considerable range of e-gift cards available to purchase online. That was no mean feat in such a short amount of time.

Creating these products, and further developing our existing products, was always part of our digital transformation roadmap, but the current situation has accelerated us on the journey, as it has for many of our customers.

Our business was embracing the rising trend of a cashless society and was seeing growth in the digital product space that significantly outperformed other product sectors. The impact of COVID-19 and social distancing has simply amplified these trends. We have learnt that putting the customer first, thinking outside the box and working in collaboration and partnership has created an agile business, that was able to continue trading throughout lockdown and installed a real sense of achievement and pride across the company.

It’s also reinforced our belief that having a culture that embraces change and transformation means we can deliver truly meaningful results that benefit customers, employees and shareholders alike.

Coming out stronger

We’re excited about what the future holds, with more new customers discovering the flexibility and ease of digital products during lockdown, and propelling us towards a digital, contactless and mobile future.

We want to continue the digital transformation of our business – across prepaid, gifting and engagement services, with a particular focus on product and customer innovation, allowing us to grow our business and create real ‘wow’ moments for our customers. Gifting and rewarding, after all, is an emotional, connected transaction.

We’re coming out of COVID-19 stronger than ever in terms of product choice, capability, delivery and service innovation, so we’re well set to keep accelerating our digital roadmap towards a future filled with joyful experiences!

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