elGrocer: The lessons we learned in the era of Covid-19

elGrocer: The lessons we learned in the era of Covid-19
Nader Amiri. Image courtesy of elGrocer

Nader Amiri is the founder of UAE-based e-grocery startup elGrocer

E-commerce is on everyone’s mind. There’s a lot being said about e-commerce and e-grocery, so we’ll skip the buzzwords and buzz statements, as well as discussing how the few months of Covid-19 lockdown resulted in years of sales and customer contributions, and so on.

Instead, we’ll start with the importance of timing and readiness, for in the startup world, we all know timing and preparation can be everything. At elGrocer we have been fortunate enough to have the right people, in the right place, at the right time. Of course, no one can claim that they were “ready” for the effects of this pandemic, except perhaps for UK-based supermarket Tesco with their wise “doomsday planning”, which you can read more about here - I came across their while back and it inspired us on so many levels on how to plan for the future.  

I’m sure like me, to many, the last few months feel like a blur. The end of February to the end of March feels like years ago, however in our industry, this period was what we like to refer to as the “Surprise Phase”. While no one knew what was ahead, in a matter of days or even hours, the whole grocery and e-grocery industry suddenly experienced a resurgence not felt in years. For us at elGrocer, this phase was about managing the sudden spike in demand. It was always part of our plan to be a few weeks or even a few months ahead of the demand curve and we kicked off 2020 with some major improvements in some fundamental business aspects such as tech, data analysis, operations, business development and more. We thought to ourselves, so far, so good, and we felt confident that thanks to our start of the year planning we would be ready for what was to come. Two months of hard work were paying off on our topline and to some extent on our bottom line, however then we entered the “Panic Phase” (April to early May).

It’s no secret that during this phase there was some panic among people and businesses alike, no one knew what to do, it was a completely unprecedented situation we all found ourselves in. From a business perspective we faced questions such as: should we hire more people? How many more people should we hire? How can we get ourselves ready for the next lockdown announcement and a further increase in demand? How can we optimise our delivery times and how fast can we train new members of staff? The industry experienced 40-50 per cent growth in a matter of weeks, if not days, and on our platform we witnessed a 5-6x transaction growth and 7-8x sales growth versus pre-Covid. Facing such an accelerated industry growth, we realised that no amount of preparation would help, but rather our key asset, what mattered most, was our people. By people I mean everyone in our ecosystem: our team who were relentless in their efforts to serve customers and support partners, our retail, brand and logistics partners who were tirelessly working to assure customers they didn’t have to worry, our investors who gave us the fuel, our advisors who rolled up their sleeves and helped, our startup partners who supported us with some of their team, and our families and friends who without their support and encouragement we wouldn’t have been able to handle the pressure.

The “Now What Phase"

On the one hand we all knew we had to keep moving fast, invest and serve, but to what level was the key question. In response, we devised a three-tiered strategy to be well-positioned not just for the short term but for the mid and longer term.

1. Manage the short term in the best possible way. Rapidly hire and train individuals for the core and on-ground teams, while simultaneously working closely with all partners (retail, logistics and brands). At first, a lot of things were not perfect, customers faced delays, items out of stock, new colleagues not trained well enough, but in the midst of all this we still managed to keep most of our customers happy. These were widely-faced issues and I believe the whole industry issued apologies to everyone who experienced these growing pains.

2. Plan for the mid-term. The pandemic brought some gaps to our attention and we spent a good while updating our playbooks/SOPs, as well as reshuffling and accelerating some of the plans we had in our roadmap on the operational side as well as the technical side. A key action we took was that while we learned to cope with the new scale, we also knew that all of this demand wasn’t going to be permanent, so in terms of on ground operations, we hired a mix of permanent and temporary team members. While we knew we were ahead of the curve, we knew we still needed to act faster and smarter than the flood of competitors that came into the industry.

3. Gearing up for the longer term. With the acceleration of the industry and a flood of new entrants, we are using our industry experience and our key asset (our team) to our advantage. We remain focused on our long term vision of building sustainable growth while evolving to meet existing and new customer needs, as well as the needs of our partners.

In retrospect it sounds well thought out, but it wasn’t. We worked, and continue working, hard and fast to serve customers better, to support and collaborate with our partners, to innovate and to gear up.

E-commerce, and in particular e-grocery, will never go back to the way it was, and in the midst of a lot of growing pains, we see the importance adapting and championing the digital landscape.


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