Exterior shot of a Greggs bakery.
Image: Shutterstock

“If I look back to the success of Greggs – we have kept pace with the consumer. Where they want to shop, how they want to shop, what they want to buy: we have constantly changed and evolved, and that’s what we will continue.”

Roisin Currie, the CEO of Greggs, summed up the business success of the bakery chain with these words in the opening keynote at Retail Week Live 2023 on Tuesday. Despite the disruption of Covid-19, which affected businesses of every kind – but especially those that relied on in-person service and interaction – and the economic challenges of 2022, Greggs reported a solid increase in annual revenue last year amid a record number of store openings, with an additional 150 new openings planned for 2023.

How has Greggs achieved this amidst a digital transformation of its business, with delivery, click-and-collect, and an updated app reward scheme all rolled out during the pandemic? Tony Taylor, IT and Business Change Director at Greggs, dived into this question in a dedicated session with Olaf Akkerman, Managing Director for Retail and Consumer Goods at Microsoft UK, explaining how Greggs balanced a tech transformation with maintaining a reputation for top-notch customer service and a commitment to its people.

The transition to a “modern food on the go” business

The arguable beginning of Greggs’ digital transformation journey was 10-12 years ago, when the business set out, in Taylor’s words, to transition to a “modern food on the go” business. At the time, Greggs had “well over a thousand” individual shops – it now has more than 2,300 – and Greggs wanted a consistent look and feel from its stores.

To achieve this, Greggs invested in its supply chain and in technology, such as with the introduction of enterprise software like SAP. However, Taylor emphasised that throughout this process, “We never lost sight of giving the customer what they want, and driving a lot of decisions out of customers.” This customer-centricity would continue to be an overriding theme of Greggs’ transformation.

Just before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Greggs had relaunched their vegan sausage roll (resulting in an infamous exchange of fire with Piers Morgan on Twitter) and had “started to play” with delivery trials and click and collect. Then, “Covid came along and caused a big conundrum – we had to decide how to move forward.”

Greggs had to contend with its shops being closed nationwide during the initial Covid-19 lockdown, which obviously hurt the business; but even when it became possible to consider reopening them, the company knew that there needed to be changes. “in coming back we knew we would need a much more compelling click and collect offer, so we doubled down on that,” said Taylor. “It was clear that customers had a need for delivery, even in our type of business.”

Balancing technology and people

In the months that followed, Greggs “almost doubled” the size of its tech teams, believing that technology would be an enabler for workers on the shop floor. At the same time, the company was conscious about adopting technology in the right way: “We had to develop solutions that worked for our shop teams – that were simple and effective.”

Akkerman asked how Greggs managed to bring its people along on the tech adoption journey – a key question for any business undergoing digital transformation to answer. One of the factors that Taylor mentioned was making sure the technology worked in an intuitive way, with the “right visual cues” to help employees learning the new systems. “We spent a lot of time thinking through how this works,” he said.

Another revelation that struck the company was that it had more than 28,000 ready-made “ambassadors” – its retail employees – who could adopt its customer-facing technology. So, Greggs put its colleague discount onto the loyalty app and encouraged employees to use it so that they would be well-positioned to help customers with their own experience. “They [now] feel a lot more comfortable in being able to use that – and that translates very easily to lots of people in shops,” said Taylor.

The adoption of more technological solutions has also presented a variety of challenges, however. Taylor explained that, three or four years ago, Greggs’ shop employees were used to having every customer directly in front of them. Now, they have delivery drivers arriving, and an “app bleeping” at them – but all orders demand excellent customer service, whether they’re digital or in-person.

The challenge, therefore, lies in making technology an aid to better customer service rather than a barrier. “Greggs is known for its warm, personable customer service,” said Taylor. “Technology needs to make that easier and more efficient without compromising on quality.

“We need customers to walk in and know that they’ll get great service every single time.”

The growing pains of digital adoption

Greggs had some unique hurdles to navigate on its digital transformation journey, such as making sure that the app responded to product availability in real-time – so that when a product was sold out, it was immediately taken off the order menu. However, with items baked and produced on the shop floor, this also needed to apply to ingredients – for example, if a shop ran out of cheese, the app needed to immediately delist any items using cheese as an ingredient, and then be able to relist them when they were back in stock.

Many aspects of its technology are outsourced to partners, such as Microsoft Azure, which helps to manage Greggs’ customer data; however, the company makes a point of building customer-facing software, such as its app, in-house, allowing it to design custom solutions to these types of challenges.

Another technical complexity came in the form of opening hours, which shops were used to setting locally – not a problem when the only indicator of when a shop was open was whether its lights were on and doors were open; a team could easily make the decision to stay open for an extra half an hour with no adverse effects. However, Covid-19 and the advent of app ordering meant that the shop’s digital opening hours also needed to be correct.

“It didn’t matter before [the introduction of delivery and click and collect] … in a digital world today, it’s invaluable,” said Taylor. “We want the most accurate and up-to-date information [on opening times].” Therefore, shops had to maintain the information digitally as well as physically.

Having such a widely-dispersed store estate also makes bringing together “all parts of the jigsaw puzzle”, such as hardware, software, and connectivity, a greater than usual challenge, such as when Greggs rolled out tablets to its shop floors and dealt with some connectivity issues. “Our shops are very small, but increasingly heavily reliant on being always-on,” said Taylor.

How does Greggs work to overcome obstacles like these? Taylor emphasised the importance of communication and honesty: “What tends to alienate front-line colleagues is not being honest and open about what the problem is.”

Greggs works to “keep communication in a good place” for its front-line shop staff; Taylor also noted the shop staff comprise a wide variety of age demographics and different technical skillsets, which has led Greggs to evolve its communication so that it works for all of them.

Ultimately, says Taylor, Greggs’ secret is its positive working culture, as evidenced by the fact that many employees who enter the business stay on and rise through the ranks of the organisation. “We have a fabulous culture in Greggs – it’s what we call the ‘secret sauce’,” he said.

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