Avoca: it’s all about the food now

The multimillion euro retail chain has had to reinvent itself since the Covid-19 lockdown

‘More of our customers have been baking from scratch and yeast sales are through the roof,’ says Avoca MD Tara O’Neill of the company’s dramatic surge in sales of baking products. Photograph: Alan Betson

‘More of our customers have been baking from scratch and yeast sales are through the roof,’ says Avoca MD Tara O’Neill of the company’s dramatic surge in sales of baking products. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

When Tara O’Neill became Avoca’s managing director nearly three years ago she probably never imagined that a day would come when the most tactile and well-heeled of Irish shops would launch a phone ordering service – and she would be delivering the goods.

“It was all hands to the pumps and I was glad to do it,” she says of her brief stint as a food delivery driver in the days after her multimillion euro retail chain was forced to reinvent itself as the coronavirus crisis engulfed the country.

While Bord Bia has been studying trends to see how Irish consumers are changing, Avoca – like many other businesses – has been living it.

Of the 13 stores in its network, only five are still open and on a limited basis. There are no fancy rugs or socks being sold now – it is all about the food.

“There are queues, but not all the time, and we have hand sanitiser at the door and around the shop and staff wiping down products constantly and screens to keep them safe. But shopping now can still be a stressful experience for many which is why we opened up more channels with phone orders for collection and delivery,” she says.

Irish products

Avoca has seen a dramatic surge in sales of baking products although it sold a lot of that already “More of our customers have been baking from scratch and yeast sales are through the roof,” O’Neill says. “But we have been focused for so long on Irish products – that is what we have built our offering on. And we get our stock from artisanal producers rather than big distributors, so our supply chains have not been badly impacted.”

Avoca was sold to Aramark for more than €60 million over three years ago after which O’Neill took the helm in a business with more than 1,000 staff and sales of over €60 million. A key job was to help evolve the retailer’s strategy. She could never have imagined that the evolution would happen so quickly.

“The key area of the business that we have had to dial up in recent weeks has been delivery,” she says. “A few weeks ago we did not offer such a service at all and last week we handled over 1,000 home deliveries. I can’t see that going away – the customer appetite for it has been ferocious.”

Ordering online

But how can a retailer that prides itself on being a destination, a place where people go as a treat rather than a chore, hope to replicate the experience when shoppers are ordering online or over the phone?

O’Neill is still wrestling with that question. “If we move a significant portion of the business online does it become too sterile? It is not an easy decision to make.”

Avoca has been experimenting with enhanced social engagement, she says. “We want to keep as many people employed as we can so some of our chefs are doing nightly recipes on Instagram and they have become quite competitive with each other as to who gets the most ‘likes’.”

Before the crisis Avoca was adding about 100 Instagram followers a week; that has now jumped to 100 a day.

Before joining Avoca, O’Neill worked with the Jamie Oliver brand in the UK. The experience taught her that personality can certainly be got across on social channel.

Broader fight

Like many companies Avoca has been exploring ways to help in the broader fight against Covid-19. It is supplying all of the food to the 40 nationwide community assessment hubs through the Feed the Heroes campaign and has been working closely with Denis O’Reilly of Good Grub to support the delivery of food to Deis schools.

As to when things will return to normal, O’Neill is not convinced it ever will. “What I am trying to do now is see what the new normal will look like. Will it all be table service or will there still be self service? Will people want to queue alongside other people and hold a tray that was held by other people or will they find table service more palatable? I don’t know. But I know the business is not going to look like it did before.”

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