From 12 floppy disks to connected fridges: Countdown celebrates its 20-year online shopping journey

  • Brand
  • July 22, 2016
  • Erin McKenzie
From 12 floppy disks to connected fridges: Countdown celebrates its 20-year online shopping journey

A supermarket may not be the first kind of business you think of when talking innovation and technological advancements but this week, Countdown is celebrating 20 years of online shopping and a new partnership with Samsung. We take a trip down memory lane to see how the floppy disk and dial-up-internet-run programme has been replaced by computers, tablets, smartphones and now smart refrigerators.

The supermarket has teamed up with Samsung to bring Kiwis the 'Family Hub Refrigerator'. It allows customers to place their Countdown order straight from the fridge via a Wi-Fi enabled touchscreen and, when out and about, they can receive a photo of the inside of the fridge to see what is running low. It takes a photo each time the door is closed.

The supporting video, by Ogilvy, shows a girl’s experiences getting food from the fridge as she grows up. What was a standard refrigerator when she was a child is a smart refrigerator when she reaches womanhood.

A partnership with Samsung and the ability to order groceries from the door of a refrigerator was unimaginable at the time the online shopping was developed.

The Warehouse executive Des Flynn, who formerly ran the Woolworths’ (now Countdown) marketing department for 19 years, was at the forefront of the development of its online service. He told The Register that his first crack at the project came to a disappointing end. He and the rest of Foodtown’s executive team were made redundant by a new chief executive who failed to see its value.

“He said... the internet was a here today, gone tomorrow, whim of someone's fancy,” Flynn said.

Undeterred, he approached managing director Graham Evans and in 1996, at a time when only 25 percent of households had a computer, Countdown recruited 100 customers from the Manuwera store to trial the service. They were sent more than a dozen floppy disks containing the online shopping programme that connected, via dial-up internet, to a central server containing product and price details.

Each item took 30 to 45 seconds to load and the average shop time took more than an hour. Customers paid by submitting a direct debit form and ID via fax, before the order was faxed to the store where two trained shoppers would pack the groceries.

While it sounds like a tedious task, Countdown discovered people were lining up to use the service.

Head of online shopping Sally Copland says even then, there was demand for ways to make Kiwis' lives easier. She says people wanted to be able to do their grocery shopping from the comfort of their own home and at a time that was convenient for them.

Within two years of its launch, the site was highly profitable, despite it being a time when the cost of building websites was so high that virtually no retailer was making money online. Whitcoulls also tried an online project, Flying Pig, but it incurred development costs 10 times that of Woolworths and folded two years after launching.

Today, that need for convenience remains. With developments including click and collect being made available to every store and, now, the partnership with Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, the average online shop takes eight minutes.

Copland says 91 percent of Kiwi households have at least one smart device and being connected to it those devices has become a part of their lives.

The supermarket processes around 20,000 online orders every week and more than 80,000 Kiwis are regular online shoppers with Countdown. To get all the groceries delivered, Countdown employs more than 1,700 personal shoppers nationwide. When the service first started, there were two personal shoppers.

While the technology and the numbers have changed, what hasn’t changed, Copland says, are the fundamentals that underpin the service.

“At the time they were setting up the service there were some things that they knew would be fundamental,” she says. “Giving customers flexibility and choice was important in 1996 and it's still important today. It was important to be able to offer the whole supermarket, and that’s a really important component of our offer today.”

She says the products and their prices are the same no matter if people are shopping in store or online.

It may seem there’s no need to ever visit a Countdown store again, but Copland says people still enjoy shopping in bricks and mortar because of the experiential component.

However, those who have yet to try online shopping could be swayed in an activation campaign. Countdown is working with Ogilvy’s activation team, to showcase the Family Hub Refrigerator at select locations in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, including the Auckland Food Show.

Copland says people will have the opportunity to see its capabilities and practice completing an online order.

  • This story originally appeared on our sister publication The Register.

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