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Perspectives

Rapid Response to COVID-19 Crisis Thwarts Panic Buying Down Under

2020-05-07


How a large grocery retailer in Australia and New Zealand limited sales of essential items while helping to protect the health of shoppers and employees alike.

The image is indelibly printed on our collective consciousness, now and forever: Bare store shelves where once there was an abundance of toilet paper. Gripped by the uncertainty of a global pandemic, some people apparently sleep better at night knowing they have a few extra rolls stored safely in the closet.

But the tendency to hoard household essentials has not been limited to bathroom tissue, as any grocery shopper can attest these days. Shortages include flour, pasta, milk, eggs and every type of cleaning supply. (Will we ever again be able to buy bleach wipes?)

Panic buying is not restricted to any one country, of course. As the crisis deepened in early March, supermarkets in Australia and New Zealand saw a large proportion of customers buying much more than they reasonably could need for a week or two. This behavior has challenged the broader supply chain to keep up with demand, meaning other shoppers — especially the elderly and people with disabilities — were often not able to buy necessities.

Burgeoning demand for essential household items has created supply-chain-wide stockouts. Responding to shortages of items like cleaners and paper goods, retailers are working closely with consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) makers, distributors and other partners to make sure items reach stores in a timely way. Retailers are making changes to their point of sale (PoS) systems to ensure the most vulnerable shoppers can access to these items once they are stocked on the shelves.

During these unprecedented times, consumers the world over are depending on their trusted local grocery stores as crucial providers of food, not to mention welcome spots of normalcy amid the chaos wrought by the virus. Beginning at the end of February and into March, executives at one of the region’s largest grocery chains were alarmed to see rapidly escalating over-buying at their stores. Even without a government mandate at that time, they knew they needed to act fast to limit panic buying and ensure a fair distribution of goods as shelves were replenished.

When abundance turns to scarcity

In the middle of March, the grocery chain turned to Cognizant’s Quality Engineering and Assurance (QE&A) team, a long-time partner, to rapidly test the configuration changes made to its PoS and self-checkout systems. The work needed to be done quickly to minimize disruptions to consumers and employees, who were already stressed. With broad functional knowledge and backed by a robotic testing solution, our QE&A team was able to turn this request around in just one day per change, helping to protect store staff and improve the customer experience as much as possible under the circumstances.

The first order of business was to test and certify changes to PoS business rules across stores to restrict sales of highly coveted items. (This soon became a matter of regulatory compliance when the governments of both countries ordered these restrictions.)

Like many grocery chains, the retailer also introduced exclusive early shopping hours for the elderly and people with disabilities. Our team helped in the seamless implementation of these changes in several change requests with multiple rules, working closely with client stakeholders to clearly define and agree to the appropriate tests with full regression and to ensure that each change request was implemented to stores within 24 hours of being received. In all, there were eight change requests over a four-week period.

Quality assurance begins with business insight

We couldn’t have worked this quickly without first having a deep understanding of the business as a trusted partner. The second requirement was our own robotic testing solution, TEBOT™, which automates the testing of both human-operated PoS devices and self-check-out processes. Our team was able to test these emergency changes with real speed despite restrictions on its physical movements. We worked exclusively — and remotely in India, where there is a total lockdown — as well as via on-site rostered in-person shifts at an Australian location (for scenarios that couldn’t be tested remotely). 

In this climate, TEBOT was an undeniable advantage. Traditional regression testing would not have allowed us to make the full complement of requested changes quickly enough to minimize disruption to employees and customers. TEBOT allowed us to complete our regression tests up to 40% faster than manual regression testing. Without this speed, the retailer would also have suffered a negative impact on the use of the self-checkout systems that account for a substantial volume of in-store transactions.

Not only would this have impacted the shoppers’ experience, it could have extended the average amount of time shoppers spent in stores, increasing the danger to all present. The bottom line: The fewer people in the store at any time, the lower the chances of virus transmission. Any front-line business needs a reliable, fast way to make changes required by the pandemic.

In hard times, trust is everything. Long a staple of consumer life in Australia and New Zealand, this grocery retailer repaid its customers’ loyalty by being there with what they need to keep going.

To learn more, visit the Retail section of our website, or for additional insights and updates see our COVID-19 resources page.

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Rapid Response to COVID-19 Crisis Thwarts Panic Buying Down Under