Having grown up in a “retail family”, Jennifer Farinha, owner of Grobank’s client Sutherland SuperSpar, has had to use all her experience and come up with innovative ways to deal with South Africa’s lockdown response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When Government began imposing shopping restrictions prior to lockdown, we were swamped,” she says. “Customers cleared the shelves. Non-perishables like tinned foods went quickly, as did other dry goods and toilet paper,” she says. “Our frozen goods section and anything that had to do with antiseptic sprays, soaps, sanitisers and sanitising wipes was gone.”

Farinha  implemented safety measures rapidly and soon began training staff using an e-learning program from Spar. “I also conducted formal staff training sessions with staff on the coronavirus Covid-19, and personal and in-store hygiene. We invested in masks and gloves for our staff and began sanitising hands and surfaces on an hourly basis, at least.”

Since the lockdown, customers have been calmer, less demanding, Farinha says. “We seeing fewer customers, but those who come in spend more, which is typical of the market we serve. People are also shopping differently now, purchasing a lot of baking products as well as ready-made convenience meals like frozen pizza and bases.”

Sutherland SuperSpar also implemented a drive-through service where customers send in a WhatsApp order. “We shop for them, pack it and deliver it to their vehicle. Payment is made using a sanitised credit card machine,” says Farinha, adding that this has been particularly beneficial for doctors, nurses, the elderly, the sickly and customers practising social distancing strictly.

Transparency in the age of fake news

An issue that has affected Sutherland SuperSpar and many other supermarkets, Farinha  notes, is having to deal with allegations of price-hiking. “As business woman, I practise transparency with my customers. So often customers are unaware of what we pay for certain goods or look at the wrong price or label.

“To mitigate any issues, I have put up posters encouraging customers to come forward and ask questions about pricing rather than spreading misinformation on social media. The same applies to stocks and supplies, which we explain to our customers.

“It has been a real challenge, but over the weeks we have adapted to what customers are demanding from us. Fresh fruit and vegetables, and immune-boosting produce like garlic, green vegetables and oranges are in high demand. Fresh bread and baking products are high on their lists, as is vitamins, antiseptic products and masks.”

Farinha says this has led to better planning as well as the opening of a warehouse for the Tembisa SuperSpar, where bulk stock is stored until there’s space in store. “We have implemented night shifts to get stock out quickly and keep our shelves full, and have had to organise packaging for our own suppliers so that they can supply us. We form part of North Rand Spar region, which has also been working around the clock to ensure we get stock and that deliveries are done on time.”

Long-term banking relationship

With Grobank having been Bank of Athens for over 70 years, Farinha says it has been a part of her family “for as long as I can remember”.

“I was a child when my parents were banking with the Bank of Athens and I had a student job on Saturdays with the bank while in school and university. My parents have been clients for the last 30 years and have often said that much of our business success can be attributed to banking with a bank that has backed and supported all our business endeavours.”

She notes that Grobank has really taken care of the family’s businesses and property portfolio and been a great support during the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Grobank called us immediately the government announced that the lockdown would be enforced, and asked if we needed anything, like payment relief on our commercial loan. Thankfully, to date we haven’t needed it, but it’s wonderful to know that our bank is there for us should the need arise.”

According to Grobank CEO Bennie van Rooy, Grobank’s most important partnerships are relationships with clients, and understanding that some are facing many challenges during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Taking immediate action, Grobank offered a four-month capital and interest payment moratorium to clients who approach the bank for assistance, while also extending an invitation to all clients experiencing financial distress to contact its relationship managers and various teams.

“It is this action that is vital to many,” says Farinha, “and shows that clients can count on Grobank in bad times as well as good.”

The new normal post Covid-19

Having studied psychology, Farinha notes that people in crisis are afraid, paranoid, frightened and can be impolite and this is a normal response to overwhelming stress about the virus and economic hardship. “But overall and thankfully, people are innately good, kind, supportive and appreciative during this time.

“We have put business continuity plans in place and really pulled together as a team. As the leader in my business I’ve had to continuously provide strategic guidance, supported by our Spar Distribution Centre to address specific actions needed to get through the crisis.

“We’ve focused on the facts by constantly staying up to date with what gets gazetted and any new legislation that is passed which also enables us to plan better and explore different scenarios and how they could affect the business in the short, medium and long term. It allows for better communication from top to bottom which reduces anxiety and stress for employees.”

Keeping your staff members and working environment safe is a daily duty, says Farinha . “We find our employees and the communities we serve are looking to our business for guidance and communication and stringent safety precautions must continue to provide a safe place for employees and customers, which then also protecting our business.”

Staff and customers also note that Sutherland SuperSpar and other branches are assisting local communities with food parcels on an ongoing basis, which engenders a spirit of community.

“This is not the last time we’ll have to contend with a difficult situation in our business, and no matter how well our business has tried to respond and adapt in these unprecedented times, there will always be something we could have done better.

“My team and I have tried our utmost and I think I can speak on behalf of most retailers when I say we have done our best to please everyone and keep everyone safe. I believe that the real determining factor in businesses getting through Covid-19 with minimal impact on human life will be is how well we can perform as a team under pressure during these times, with the support of our  bank and our local DC.”

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