We realise that, over the coming weeks and months, our food home delivery service is going to be a lifeline for both our existing box scheme members, and many people who will be confined to their homes and experiencing ‘food insecurity’. This is a responsibility we take very seriously. Our most important objectives right now are that we build resilience into our business, so that our existing members feel reassured that we’ll reliably get through with deliveries, and we can also increase capacity so that we can help out those people who really need our service.
Over the past week we have been working flat out devising our coronavirus strategy, and have made a lot of preparations to ensure that we can deliver these two important objectives.
The first of these measures, and the one most relevant to our customers, is that we are going into ‘Dig in for Victory’ mode, starting on the 30 March. Basically, we are scaling back our service and offering to the bare essentials, and streamlining our entire operation. There are a few reasons why we need to do this, firstly to reduce our administrative workload: during this past week, Rob and David, who have been real heroes, were often working past midnight trying to process all the emails and website activity. If we are to provide a reliable service throughout the coronavirus crisis, we need our management team to be focussed on things like managing staff and supply chains, and we also need to simplify everything in case any of our key people are unable to work themselves. Secondly, we are taking on a lot of extra staff, both so that we can scale up and also so we have resilience in the team if/when our own staff have to self-isolate or fall ill. We will not be able to give these new staff the same degree of training that we normally provide, so operations need to be simpler, and we need to set a lower expectation of the level of service we can provide with so many inexperienced staff. And finally, we may well experience disruptions to the supply of certain products making it impossible to continue our usual level of service.
What will happen during ‘Dig in for Victory’ mode?
We are going to consolidate our product range. As of the 30 March we will be offering ‘Choice’ boxes and ‘Dig in’/’Dig in plus’ (a temporary rebrand of our ‘Original’ and ‘Favourites’ box ranges) boxes only. Each range will have small, medium, large and giant sizes, plus a choice of veg only, or fruit & veg. In choice boxes you will be able to pick your box contents and set up ‘permanent preferences’. In ‘Dig in for Victory’ boxes you will not, but these boxes will be better value for money ‘Dig in plus’ boxes allow a small number of exclusions.
We will no longer be offering ‘mini add-on’ boxes and fruit upgrades and extra fruit and veg. If you usually like to order these things we suggest increasing the size of your box. Those of you with an Original Vegetable Box and Original Fruit Upgrade will move to the new ‘Dig in Medium Fruit and Vegetable Box’.
We will be offering a smaller range of ‘additional items’. Our stocks of dried and tinned goods were almost stripped bare last week, and many lines are now completely out of stock. Our usual wholesaler isn’t able to fufil any further orders. What we plan to do instead is increase the offering of products from other local businesses, especially those who have been forced to close their doors, or whose route to market has been disrupted. This will include coffee and tea from Hot Numbers roastery, and hot-cross buns and Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies– important treats for keeping up morale.
During ‘Dig in for Victory’ we reserve the right to make necessary alterations to customers’ order, especially during the changeover this coming weekend. We will not be notifying customers if we do this: sorry, it will simply take too long to contact everyone. In most cases the reason we will be doing this is in order to try and get your order as close as possible to what you were previously accustomed to.
During our ‘Dig in for Victory’ phase it will be less easy for you to contact us. We will not be answering the telephone, although you can leave a message. We will not respond to emails straight away. If you wish to get a message to us by either of these methods, please assume that it will take three days to be actioned. If you can, it would be far better if you can log in to our website in order to manage your COFCO order yourself. There are a few of our customers who we know are vulnerable, and we will make special exceptions for those people. Please regularly look at the News section of our website homepage and our Facebook page, as this is where we will post important information.
There will be a higher likelihood that you won’t get exactly what you want, and we’ll show less commitment to rectifying mistakes than we normally do. One of the ‘hidden’ customer service tasks we have prided ourselves on it the past is checking all website activity for signs that customers have been doing things online that they might not have meant to do, and then messaging them to find out their actual intentions. With so much website activity last week this was the admin task that kept Rob and David up until the early hours. We are going to stop doing this from now on.
These will be our trading terms, beginning on 30 March, for the foreseeable future. We have taken the attitude of ‘prepare for the worst’. We don’t know what’s in store over the coming months, and are preparing ourselves for disrupted supply chains and workforce, and it is important that we set expectations of customer service levels at a lower level, so we can concentrate on the much more important task of maintaining our service at all costs. Hopefully, things will not turn out to be quite as bad as this and we can gradually bring back some of the features and restore our service to what it was before. Above all, we want our customers to be reassured that, no matter how bad things get, we’ll be doing all we can to get to you: you might not get exactly what you wanted, there might be a mistake with your order, you might be frustrated that you cannot speak to us, but we’ll get you some food!
What about Coronavirus?
We are implementing special protocols to protect ourselves and our customers from infection. If infection gets into our workforce this will be terminal for the business and our ability to supply you food, so we take this very seriously. We are, of course, following government guidelines on cleanliness and social distancing. In addition to this we have a couple of special procedures which affect our customers. Firstly, we will not come to your door: we will automatically leave your box in your ‘box leaving place’. Secondly we need to take extra care with the boxes themselves. If your household has even a small risk of infection, please DO NOT give the empty box back to us. In all other cases please leave your empty boxes in your ‘box leaving place’ for at least 48 hours before your next box is due to be delivered. We also encourage all customers to pay by GoCardless if at all possible, rather than by cash or even cheque.
What about signing up new members?
You may know people who would really like to join our scheme right now. With the measures we have taken, we will be in a position to accept a lot more members onto our box scheme. However, it is important to us that our service reaches the people who are experiencing food insecurity, and if we open up our normal ordering system again we will be inundated with new orders without being able to identify who really needs our service.
Our strategy to help us identify the people who are most in need of our service is to have a team of ‘COFCO Community Angels’ located in different geographical areas within our delivery zone. The volunteer ‘Angels’ are long-standing box scheme members who are tuned in to the needs of their local community. Anybody who would like to join our scheme can be signposted to their local ‘COFCO Community Angel’, who will have information about how many places are available and also communicate to us which areas have the greatest need, so we can plan new rounds accordingly. The people we want to prioritise are those people, especially the elderly, who are going to be confined to their homes long-term. If you know of people who are in this situation, please do signpost them to their local angel.
A final note
When this crisis is all over, we will emerge to a very different world. Even in this earliest stage of the pandemic, people have been forced to dramatically reassess what things are important and valuable. Right now, we are beginning to understand how important it is to have a resilient local food system, such as that we’ve been working so hard to achieve with our Food Hub project. COFCO will emerge from this situation as a very different company. Financial sustainability is more critical to us than ever: we’ve always worked on tight margins and shoestring budgets, and the most importantly thing for me now is ensuring financial viability, so that I can pay my amazing employees if they have to self-isolate or become ill, and so we can keep trading throughout the crisis. It is possible that COFCO will grow considerably in a short space of time. We do not regard this as a business opportunity, but rather our civic duty. If we do happen to make some money during the crisis, then I pledge that every penny made will go into the Food Hub project and help creae the resilient Local Food Ecosystem which I believe in so passionately.