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The project challenges of retailers’ COVID-enforced shift to e-commerce

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Few sectors have taken as much of a battering as retail in the past 12 months. And during the third nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, the upheaval shows no sign of slowing.

Spending in stores and online fell by more than eight per cent in January. Clothing sales were down 35 per cent from the month before; sales of household goods dropped almost 20 per cent. And with non-essential shops enduring lasting closure, the scramble to embrace e-commerce has been so rapid and widespread in the last year that it sparked a cardboard shortage around the world.

For project professionals in the sector, this has brought huge change. Not just at those companies struggling to find their feet in this new reality, but also at those businesses fortunate enough to be in demand and thriving.

Life is like a box of chocolates…

Take Hotel Chocolat. Prior to the pandemic, the chocolate retailer was focusing its energy on physical stores that offered customers a full tactile experience: in-store staff opening boxes of chocolates for customers to try, or stopping for a drink in the new café-stores it had opened in Japan. It was also focused on expanding with stores in the US.

The pandemic changed all that. The company doubled the size of its distribution centre at St Neots, near Cambridge, which enabled a full and fundamental shift to online sales.

“We went from being a high-street brand with a bit of online, to being totally online,” says Hannah Gledhill, senior project manager at Hotel Chocolat. “We had that ability to switch the strategy, to change how we were going to grow, as opposed to letting it all fall down. Rather than thinking: ‘OK, the pandemic hit and the US expansion failed,’ we just changed how we’re selling to people.”

Accelerated shift to e-commerce

Hotel Chocolat is, of course, in a fortunate position. As an affordable lockdown luxury, its product is in high demand. It was able to switch and sell exclusively via major e-commerce channels like Amazon, QVC and John Lewis. And it has used the accelerated shift to e-commerce to trial new online sales models, like online chocolate subscriptions, and new product lines. It also launched a project called The Inventing Room, where selected customers give real-life feedback on new chocolate, biscuit and alcohol products ahead of full roll-outs.

Gledhill heads up the team of project managers in charge of product development. For them, the most direct and immediate impact of the pandemic was unprecedented uncertainty over supplies –everything from tins and cardboard packaging to ingredients – which caused a shift towards longer lead times and greater proactivity and planning.

But the pandemic has also accelerated deeper changes in project management. In January 2020, Gledhill and her team were moving to the Kaizen method of continuous improvement, tightening the product development and project management processes – ostensibly to ensure they could keep up with the demands of international expansion.

“We’re trying to get our project teams entirely focused on the project, with the mentality of a NASA control room,” she says. “So we’re all in the room, we know exactly what’s going on with our project, what the risks are and where we’re at. This company is growing at such a pace that we’re testing these new ways of working with live projects. We don’t get a chance to just stop and see if something will work. We’re continuously evolving the process. And with the pandemic we’re still doing that, only now the project management collaboration is all virtual.”

‘This is what the future looks like…’

While that’s presented a huge challenge – enacting this change while scrambling to work remotely – there have been some upsides, not least forcing the team to deliver these sweeping changes more quickly than if they were all going into a physical space to work together. “We just had to get on with it,” says Gledhill. “We knew what we needed to achieve. We were all of the same mindset, all aware of where we needed to get to, and this is what the future looks like, as opposed to being thrown into this world of uncertainty without anyone being aligned.”

Hotel Chocolat’s project management is now a centralised function, based in a new transformation office, supporting the wider business and strategy – not just product development, but new commercial opportunities or systems transformation too. And the flexibility and responsiveness this offers could prove critical as the retail environment continues to shift and change – whatever blend of high street and e-commerce turns out to be best for the future.

“The business appreciates the value added by project managers and can see how it’s transferable to other projects,” says Gledhill. “We’re able to step back and see what’s happening in a project beginning to end. And we’re able to draw on our contacts, on the relationships we’ve built throughout the business commercially or operationally, and pull the right people in – to benefit the growth plans of the company.”

Listen to Helen Gledhill explain how her team emerged from the initial crisis management phase on the APM Podcast


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