Top of the Month: Sainsbury's and peers rise to COVID-19 challenge

The coronavirus has been a massive test of whether firms that talk the talk on 'purpose' can walk the walk. In general, UK supermarkets have passed with flying colours.

Sainsbury's and other supermarkets have played a vital role in looking after people during the pandemic. Photos: Getty Images
Sainsbury's and other supermarkets have played a vital role in looking after people during the pandemic. Photos: Getty Images

The retailers have been under pressure like never before, amid the challenges of keeping shelves stocked and dealing with panic buying, alongside new rules on social distancing.

They formed a united front on 15 March when bosses of all major supermarkets, via the British Retail Consortium, wrote a joint open letter that struck the right balance between practical advice and reassurance about the availability of staple goods.

"There is enough for everyone if we all work together," it stated.

Supermarkets showed they were listening, responding to calls on social media to allow older and more vulnerable customers only to shop for the first hour or two at their stores, and giving them priority for online orders.

Restrictions were placed on the number of purchases of certain items and preferential treatment was offered to NHS staff. These moves soon became commonplace.

Several, including Morrisons, also deserve credit for pledging to pay suppliers on time (unlike some big companies in other sectors).

If we're to single out one operator, PRWeek picks Sainsbury's, whose CEO Mike Coupe's message on 25 March outlined clearly and with empathy the steps the company is taking alongside a request of understanding from customers.

Credit also to The Co-op, which has pledged to donate £1.5m to food banks and £4.5m to other charities over the coming days; and to Tesco, for granting a 10 per cent bonus to 'frontline' employees.

The responses have been no fluke. Supermarkets have evolved their comms strategies in recent years alongside shifting business priorities. The move from a period of major expansion to retention has meant greater focus on keeping existing customers and suppliers happy - especially as competition from online retailers has intensified.

Supermarkets have also been forced to adapt quickly to the era of 'purpose'. Heightened scrutiny of their environmental credentials, for example, has led to bold pledges around cutting plastic use.

Tough times lie ahead for the retail giants, but in an unprecedented period of disruption their messages are so far hitting the right notes.

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