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How the ‘toilet paper wars’ played out at our largest supermarket chains

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne Axelsson
August 10, 2021
How the ‘toilet paper wars’ played out at our largest supermarket chains

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Accelerated by Covid and the response to lightning-speed changes to customer shopping habits, there’s a growing trend in retail to build business success through doing what’s right for the customer. But is it counterintuitive to do the right thing instead of managing the bottom line? And how can we make sure that following an ethical North Star, won’t take customer experience south?

We talked to Wadim Schreiner, Head of Customer Insights & Customer 1st, to delve into how the infamous ‘toilet paper wars’ played out at Australia/New Zealand’s largest supermarket chains. 

Wadim’s obsession with customers started well before ‘CX’ (customer experience) and ‘UX’ (user experience) became common acronyms and he’s turned his deep understanding of consumer behaviour and data into his passion and profession, leading cross-functional teams at Woolworths NZ (Countdown), the country’s largest food retailer (and subsidiary of the Australian Woolworths Group). 

Amazing customer experience when everything else is less than amazing 

2020 saw the retail giant thrust into a ‘new normal’ when people from across the businesses suddenly became ‘frontline workers’. “We all had a role to play, not only to keep the business running, but to care for our most vulnerable and anxious or even just plain upset people in the community. There was no recipe around how to operate in that kind of environment, but we worked fast and found new ways to create amazing customer experiences, when everything else seemed anything but amazing…” says Wadim. 

Countdown may not have had a recipe… but Wadim thinks they did already have the ingredients...

All Covid did was underline the essentials…

“None of this is new. A lot of people are saying that Covid is going to change the world (of customer experience). It isn't. A few things have been accelerated, but the fundamentals of great customer engagement haven't changed in thousands of years...”

Customer feedback as the fuel of a healthy business

An average experience is one that the customer expects to happen; for the right product to arrive at the right time, in the right condition. An awesome experience goes one step further and does something the customer doesn’t expect. 

“That sounds easy enough…but so many still get the basics of an average experience wrong. Being awesome is hard work; and then the problem with being awesome is that the more awesome you become, the harder you have to work to be more awesome. All the time!” 

Luckily these days there are tools and platforms that make understanding customer expectations easier than ever before. These are critical in helping you take that one step beyond, and ensuring a consistent focus on what the customer is saying. 

“At Countdown supermarkets, we run regular customer panels, bringing customers into the business so that leaders, marketers and the sales teams can hear what customers think, ask questions and discuss ideas. The conversations do not always go in the direction we want, but without that feedback, there is no way to improve what we do from the customer’s perspective, rather than the business,” says Wadim. 

His belief around the importance of these sessions is pretty uncompromising: If you're not open to feedback, and don't have mechanisms in place to get feedback; if you don't know how to deal with that feedback - you don't stand a chance of succeeding with customers.

Throw away the customer experience handbook!

He goes on to say that Countdown doesn’t have an official handbook for staff – and that the concept of ‘The Handbook’ will often have the opposite effect than intended. 

“The problem with handbooks is that once people read them; they think ‘that's what I've got to go and do and nothing else.’ But if you give people access to customer feedback, irrespective of their role, then everyone sees what customers think and uses that as a point for improvement. That's the best handbook!”

Frontline magic, with no rules!

The now widely publicised “Quiet Hour” at Countdown supermarkets for vulnerable customers began at the request of just one customer who thought it would make shopping for her child with a learning disability easier. Listening to that one customer, one staff member was able to create a viral wave of support and positive media – a win-win for everyone!

Similarly, during those early weeks of Covid lockdown, the customer voice was more important than ever. Talking to customers who were scared, screaming or crying was a wake up call to do things differently. 

“At Countdown, without a definitive ‘recipe card’ for success, but knowing we all had the ingredients, we trusted our people to take the lead – even if that meant giving orders for free to keep people safe.”

It’s in those moments that Wadim says you’ll find the magic...

“People need to throw off the shackles of defined responsibility. This means they can actually focus on just doing what is right for the customer; without fear that there's going to be any repercussions.”

That’s a tough leap to take, and Wadim admits that they didn’t always get it right, but every mis-step was an opportunity to learn and make it right for the customer. 

Don’t judge by success, but by learnings

Wadim loves this quote from the late President and iconic humanitarian Nelson Mandela:  “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” 

He wishes that the team could always hit that magic note, but acknowledges that we have to fail to learn to progress. 

“Countdown talks about ‘The power of 18,000’ – that’s 18,000 members of the team, every one of them knowing that they have a role to play in helping to make customer lives better every day. Giving them the autonomy to work on ideas and put them into action will unlock that potential in our business.”

CX secrets

Wadim’s final advice for creating memorable experiences is remarkably simple: 
  • “Keep focusing on it. In a world where there's so many things that you need to go and do - remember to focus on what your customers experience.” 
  • “Seek feedback; and allow negative feedback to motivate you even more than positive feedback.”
  • “Don’t accept average. Push harder to achieve much more than average! Make awesome experience your new average…”
  • “Everyone should be exposed to customers. No exceptions. If you don't do this, you run the risk of making business decisions from the ivory tower and they're usually wrong.”

To hear the full interview, head over to our Podcast


Susanne Axelsson

About the Author

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne is the Frontline Community Evangelist as well as the author and researcher for Frontline Magic Handbook. She believes happy customers are born out of great experiences. Great experiences are delivered by motivated frontline people.
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