Originally a small team of Aberdeenshire butchers, for over 40 years Donald Russell has been the trusted supplier to some of the most prestigious hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide. 

During that time the company’s passionate commitment to traditional quality has seen it acquire a Royal Warrant and grow into Britain’s leading online and mail order butcher.

Chris Dunridge and Derek Leslie from Donald Russell explained to Arran Mackenzie of Burness Paull what impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on its business.

What has changed in your sector since the lockdown?

Donald Russell supplies high quality food products direct to consumers in their homes, and during the first few weeks of lockdown we experienced an unprecedented level of demand for our home delivery service.

Shopping habits are changing and the covid crisis has turbo charged these changes.

Online food shopping and home delivery services are examples of business sectors that have grown and benefited from the lockdown.  Many smaller food retailers without an online presence have been adapting their business models in response.

Conversely, our trade business, where we supply to hotels, restaurants, etc. and to some export markets, mainly in Europe, almost disappeared overnight.

What impact has lockdown had on your business?

With the lockdown demand piling up, supermarkets and delivery giants like Ocado and Amazon Fresh quickly became overwhelmed and could not meet consumer demand.

It was quite an experience for us as a business too. Our contact centre in Inverurie saw levels of calls not seen even during the Christmas peak.

We could not answer all the calls that were receiving, and our website slowed down due to the overwhelming demand placed on the platform. Everyone wanted food delivered directly to their homes, from existing customers, including those we hadn’t heard from in a long time, through to new customers.

The huge increase in demand for our products meant that we had to respond quickly in order to adapt in this unchartered territory.  Some of our suppliers also faced challenges, and some closed during lockdown.

We also struggled with suppliers based in Europe, as many of these focused on supplying their domestic markets and were unable to supply us.  We had to quickly source alternative products in the UK, and we plan to continue using most of these suppliers going forward.

What have you done in response?

Covid was a real test of our agility and in our daily response management meetings we were updated on the changing demands that resulted from lockdown. Being a food business, we already had the majority of hygiene measures in place, but social distancing meant that we had to change the way we work.

First and foremost, we had to look after our staff while they were working harder than ever to make sure orders got to our customers as quickly as possible. As we are a business providing food, our staff were classed as key workers who were still allowed to come to work throughout lockdown.

Logistics were an early challenge but our excellent relationships with our hauliers meant that we had incredible support and co-operation from them to add to our delivery schedules. Customers who were used to quick deliveries had to accept later delivery dates but their expectations soon adapted to the new reality, as this was the case with all online delivery providers, even the big ones like Ocado.

We extended our operating hours in our fulfilment centre, putting in an additional shift to pick and pack orders and have opened an additional contact centre in Inverurie. The business has expanded to meet the challenge and this has resulted in the recruitment of over 100 new employees since the beginning of March.

The additional challenge of employees working from home created IT and communication issues, but these were met with agility, creativity and a lot of very hard work by our staff.

What have been the consequences of your change in behaviour/operations?

One consequence has been our leadership team and our teams across the business coming together to face this challenge as a truly exceptional team.  We worked together in ways not experienced before and while this was hard work it was incredibly rewarding.  We are really proud of what we have achieved and the working relationships that have been strengthened across all our sites.

We also communicated with all our staff more frequently, with real honesty and clarity. We needed to bring the whole team with us, and it was important that they saw us making good decisions and leading with compassion, at what has been a really difficult time for so many of us.

Although we had already planned to improve our online ordering experience, lockdown forced us to do this more quickly and with great feedback from our customers we are now continuing to improve the customer experience on an ongoing basis.

Supply chain issues forced us to review what products we sell, and this has been a very useful process leading to a full range and price review.

What are your predictions for the short term in your sector?

As lockdown eases and people start to eat out again, we expect our Trade business to pick up again, and there are early signs of this happening.  Supermarket shopping is still viewed as a chore and people do not enjoy the experience now – masks and the general ambience put some people off.  Online food shopping has doubled in the last few months and we expect that trend to continue.  However, more retailers are now in the online space and competition has inevitably increased.

What are the changes that will ‘stick’ once out of lockdown, both for your business/products, and affect your sector for the longer term?

Social distancing is here for the foreseeable future and therefore working from home or some degree of more flexible working will continue.

The convenience of online shopping is here to stay, and all the indicators are that this trend will continue.  Food businesses with a strong online presence should continue to do well.

Rather than visit a supermarket, the less pressured experience of browsing through a website, taking your time to enjoy the shopping experience is really appreciated.

In addition, the benefits of frozen food have become more widely appreciated and consumers are seeing a real benefit in having a stock of frozen foods for convenience and also as an insurance policy in the event of another lockdown.

We are also delighted to be able to continue to work with new UK suppliers who we started to do business with during lockdown.

What can the industry learn from all of this?

Online food retailing is here to stay and will only grow in share.  Agility and the ability to respond and take decisions quickly are a key learning.  It is vital that businesses provide and continue to develop easy and enjoyable shopping, buying and delivery experiences.

How is your business now placed to deal with any future lockdowns that may arise?

As a food production business, we expect to continue to work through any future lockdown and to support our staff if that happens. Our Covid 19 policy is robust and the safety of our employees is important for individuals, for our families and for the business.

Our investment in IT solutions has meant that homeworking and digital communications are solutions that we can continue to utilise as we reduce face to face meetings and the requirement to travel.