February 29, 2024

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Brand in action: How Coles Australia keeps omnichannel grocery shopping accessible and engaging

Coles Australia responded swiftly to the restrictions wrought by COVID-19 measures and has since shifted its focus to building out a more personalised and seamless omnichannel brand experience. Coles Group CMO Lisa Ronson speaks to WARC about ditching the print catalogue, lessons learnt and what’s in store for the year ahead.

Key insights

  • It is important to remember is it is the same customer across offline and online channels, therefore a seamless and consistent experience must be offered.
  • Where possible, brands must add more value to the experience than just one channel can do on its own – Unique innovation like that is what builds customer loyalty and trust.
  • Getting the balance right between personalised product offers and inviting serendipitous discovery is key to sustained engagement.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands in Australia can craft better digital experiences for consumers. Read more

COVID-19 has forced many consumer brands to shift attention and resources towards online and e-commerce channels. How did Coles navigate this swing?

When COVID first hit, we saw one of our greatest shifts towards Coles Online. Very quickly, we were faced with the challenge of managing stock levels. Remember the toilet paper panic buying? Never in my career did I think I would be telling customers to buy less of our products. The unexpected intensity of COVID’s impact saw us, and our main competitor, having to suspend our online retail services for a few weeks.

Whilst the team has the right resources in place to be able to support this shift, many new solutions had to brought in. Many of these related to food and customer safety, and of course, the additional complexities from the huge load placed around our supply chain.

As we adjusted and the panic buying slowed, we were very quickly able to reinstate this service, ensuring it was available to those who needed us most during this time. Along with our community hour in stores, we launched an online priority service. Coles worked closely with the government to identify who those priority customers were, including the vulnerable, health-effected and elderly, and how we could best keep Coles available to them.

The most exciting part is how quickly the team mobilised to ensure fast, responsive decisions for our customers from in-store team members through to our delivery van drivers and our customer care call centre staff. Processes that normally took months were able to be reduced to weeks to support the rapidly evolving environment.

This was no small effort from our e-commerce and operations team. Their hard work and dedication this time was fundamental to maintaining our high-quality product and service offering to our customers during a challenging and unnerving time – I could not have been prouder of how the team responded.

How would you describe Coles’ current digital brand experience?

Our driving philosophy is to provide assurance to Australians that Coles has what they need, when they need it. It is so important to us that when a customer is searching for a product, we can offer the right information at the right time for the best way to locate that product.

Our physical stores are often just around the corner for our customers and we want our digital channels and tools to be just as accessible. The two need to complement each other in an effortless and seamless manner and where possible, add more value to the experience than just one channel, either physical or digital, can do on its own.

We have recently launched an intuitive new web platform, Abode AEM for coles.com.au. With this, we are now able to offer a better web experience for our customers. Our most recent ‘Coles Little Treehouse’ campaign saw us deliver high quality onsite experience and record traffic levels to the website.

Through COVID, Coles Online experienced significant growth and we now have a fantastic opportunity to keep our customers engaged here and ultimately, enhance their overall experience with the Coles brand.

Lisa Ronson, CMO, Coles Group

How has the company’s approach and investment into its digital brand experience evolved over the last two years?

Gone are the days where digital was considered a stand-alone channel (as it previously had been throughout the industry). It is now a minimum expectation that digital is entirely integrated into the customer journey and offers the same high-quality experience a customer can expect in stores.

We’re currently working through a larger strategy that has us preparing and cleaning up our current digital capabilities for a seamless omnichannel experience across all Coles channels.

In the past 12 months alone, this has seen us launch and utilise an array of great new tools. We relaunched coles.com.au to the Abode AEM platform. We launched coles&co, our customer destination for specials and exclusive content on recipes, product updates, tips and tricks. We’re using a more data-centric approach to creating customer promotions and experiences, ensuring they are more relevant and personalised to the individual.

And of course, possibly our most significant digital marketing initiative, we stopped walking the catalogue to our customers letterboxes and drew all focus to our digital catalogue.

Does the company have an in-house team focused on technology and customer experiences (both digitally and instore)?

We do! Sujeet Rana was appointed as General Manager of Customer Experience and Technology in June of 2020 and he has a talented team alongside him. The team has been oriented to focus on the end to end customer experience across all facets of the journey from research and awareness through to purchase and after care. We are rapidly increasing our engineer capacity to ensure we can continue to build great experiences for our customers at pace.

One of the significant takeaways we learnt through the pandemic is that we can work extremely effectively remotely. We’re now rapidly onboarding talent from across Australia as we tap into new pools of talent to diversify our thinking.

Personalisation remains a core objective for many brands looking to improve their marketing communications with targeted consumers, how has Coles tackled this?

Like many companies, Coles has faced the big data challenge. Having actionable data has been a key initiative for several teams and we’ve invested a lot in this space.

For years now, we’ve offered personalised weekly offers to our customers through our flybuys communications, our My Weekly Specials and Our Fresh Specials emails. We experience incredibly high engagement here and we are constantly looking for ways of refining our algorithms to ensure our customers can easily access the products we know are relevant to them.

What we’ve learnt is that you must get the balance right – yes, our customers want to see the offers etc. on products they buy frequently, but as our product range grows we know it’s important our customers are easily able to browse other products that might be of interest. We have some exciting plans to extend our approach to offering our customers relevant content, offers and services to other channels and platforms over the coming months. Watch this space.

How does Coles ensure consistency in its online brand efforts within the broader marketing scope that includes offline spaces and traditional media channels?

We established an integrated approach to campaign and communications planning some time ago. Consistency is key in delivering seamless, high impact experiences for our customers. While once, digital channel planning tended to come later in the process, our agencies and teams now deliver offline, traditional and digital concepts at the same time.

We have recently made some changes to our brand playbook as we continue to optimise our digital design standards and bring greater consistently to our marketing. As we advance through our larger omnichannel strategy, this consistency and integration will only improve and become a more seamless experience for our customers.

What’s next for Coles with regards to how the company plans to evolve its digital brand and consumer experiences? What do you hope to achieve in the coming months?

Last year, we announced we were no longer dropping the paper catalogue in letterboxes. This move not only represented another step towards Coles’ goal of becoming Australia’s most sustainable supermarket (estimated to save 10,000 tonnes of paper every year) but also opened a whole world of opportunity for us and connecting with our customers. Now being utilised by a record number of our customers, we have big plans for our digital catalogue. We have just redeveloped our app platform and are very quickly developing intuitive feature enhancements to continually improve the experience.

We know our customers are increasingly looking for inspiration on the go. With coles&co, we have a digital-first approach to developing new, contemporary content for customers. Here we have a world of tips, tricks, recipes and budget saving ideas.

The most exciting opportunity, and a personal ambition of mine, comes from the integration of different initiatives. How can they support each other? How can combining the functions of two channels create a unique and high value offering that neither could do alone? Unique innovation like that is what builds customer loyalty and trust, and where the Coles team is looking to for the future.

Do you have a favourite brand whose digital experiences you really enjoy or appreciate? Do share why and has it influenced the work being done at Coles?

IKEA Place, IKEA’s Augmented Reality Furnishing App – Digital Catalogue Offering.

We know that one size no longer fits all for a catalogue offering. They now need to be personalised to each individual, and where possible functionally supportive to the physical experience of purchase. IKEA has gone above and beyond in responding to this. IKEA’s catalogue has always offered inspiration to what our homes could look like, however, when you take your new furniture piece home, how often are customers left feeling disappointed when it doesn’t look the same in their personal space?

IKEA’s app, IKEA Place, uses Augmented Reality Furnishing that directly addresses this hurdle and personalises their products to each individual’s space by being able to see exactly what the experience of the purchase will be like once brought home.

We are now increasingly seeing retailers utilise AR including optometrists, shoes and clothing brands, allowing you to see what the products would look like on your body. How Augmented Reality could be utilised for a food retailer isn’t as obvious, though personalisation through advancing the digital experience offers a world of opportunity.

For Coles we can look at better understanding individuals’ eating habits or current pantry contents to offer personalised meal inspiration, suggested grocery lists or pre-empting delivery before the customer even knows they need to pick up milk.

What would be your advice to fellow marketers looking at developing better digital experiences for their own brands?

Whilst COVID has showed us a dramatic shift to online and digital, we know customers will always love and value the experience of heading into a physical bricks and mortar store and interacting with the brand in person. What’s important to remember is it is the same customer across these two channels and therefore a seamless and consistent experience must be offered.

The challenge is to provide an omnichannel approach and bring the digital experience into the physical stores and the physical stores into the digital experience. Where possible, how can the two complement each other for an even greater experience than just one can offer?

IKEA Place, IKEA’s Augmented Furnishing Reality App, can do exactly this. Customer’s see the item in-store and can feel and touch the quality and experience, then understand what that experience will be like in your own home through being able to virtually visual that on the app.

Mastering this is increasingly the minimum expectation from customers and it’s where you can find added functional value throughout the whole journey by utilising both channels that you can truly win with the customer.

Read more in this Spotlight series