As the world changes forever we pick ten firms that have embraced tech during lockdown

Some of the greatest business ideas have been born in times of adversity. From Uber and Slack, created in the wake of the financial crisis, all the way back to Disney, established when Walt Disney had the idea of making funny cartoons to cheer up the masses in the 1929 Great Depression.

But, while many new “unicorns” will be started up in the current crisis, many existing giant companies have changed the way they do business too, as they adjust to the new realities of pandemic life.

Many found the changes they’ve undertaken will make them better businesses for life.

Here are 10 of Britain’s best big-company pivoters:

Foxtons has launched virtual video tours of its properties

Foxtons and Winkworth

These two estate agent companies are among those in the industry that have boosted their use of tech since the coronavirus outbreak. Up until this week, the government had urged people to avoid moving where possible, physical viewings were off the cards, and estate agents shut branches. The rules have now been relaxed.

Foxtons’ chief operating officer Patrick Franco told the Standard that since the lockdown in March, the company has launched virtual video tours of properties.

The London firm drew up basic guidelines for tenants, landlords and sellers on filming homes using phones, including what parts of the property to include and focus on. Those were then sent to Foxtons’ sales and lettings agents who got a virtual crash course in iphone film editing from the marketing team. To date around 2000 video tours have been created and put online for would-be buyers or renters to view.

Franco says this is new technology for the company, and it has been well received. During the lockdown there was an 85% spike in the number of rental applications made online.

Franco said: “Prioritising technology which serves customers enabled us to quickly make virtual viewings and valuations not only happen, but also successful.”

AIM-listed Winkworth, which has 60 branches in London, also launched virtual viewings and valuations.

Chief executive Dominic Agace said: “Although clients are now able to have one of our agents carry out socially distanced valuations and viewings again, the success and uptake of videoing and viewing tech will mean we will continue to adopt this method of contact post Covid-19.”

Watches of Switzerland

For a long time the luxury goods sector was slow to sell online, preferring to serve customers in Bond Street stores and in other high end shopping streets.

That has changed over the years, with Watches of Switzerland Group among retailers making a push to boost digital sales. That push has been ramped up since the virus outbreak, said chief executive Brian Duffy.

Duffy said the firm, which sells Rolex and Cartier watches, started to sell some brands online during the lockdown that it previously only sold in stores, such as Panerai and Jaeger LeCoultre. Duffy has also hosted several Instagram Live interviews with luxury watch brand chiefs and key industry figures. The moves have helped entice customers who are at home to shop.

The efforts have made an impact. Watches of Switzerland Group saw online sales leap 45.8% in the six weeks to April 26.

When shops reopen the firm expects the majority of customers will want to view products in physical stores, but the pandemic has shown the sector has serious potential to grow further online.

AO World

The chief executive of AO World recently said: “In terms of online shopping behaviour, I believe we have seen five years accelerate into only five weeks.”

The statement was typically forthright from the online electricals retailer’s boss John Roberts, a man who founded his company after a £1 bet with a mate in a pub.

He has a point though, the idea of buying appliances like washing machines and dishwashers online without seeing them physically first would have been alien to many, but now consumers have accepted it as a reality.

Moreover, practices such as video conferencing are now commonplace among an older generation who may not have glanced at a laptop before – opening up a new potential market. And with the world outside closed, home technology has been at the crux of making life bearable. “There has been a new appreciation for anything that has got a plug on it,” Roberts told the Standard this week.

Sales are up more than 100% in most categories – from breadmakers to TVs as consumers try to keep themselves busy.

For AO, this rapid shift hasn’t so much required a change in business model as an opportunity to try and keep consumers if and when “normal” conditions return.

Roberts believes AO’s is a brand that, after customers try it, they don’t go back to High Street shopping. So far, the business says it has taken market share from rivals.

The next task: hanging on to it.

Dixons Carphone

The owner of the Currys PC World brand has long looked a business in choppy waters. The rise of Amazon and fellow rivals offering cheap prices left its huge estate of out-of-town stores looking like a liability, and a push to improve prices and customer service levels has arguably only partially mitigated that. On top of that, a trend towards consumers not upgrading their smartphones as regularly has hurt its Carphone Warehouse division in recent years.

So newish chief Alex Baldock’s decision to permanently shut all of its 531 standalone Carphone stores, putting 2900 jobs at risk, at the onset of the virus crisis felt the right call, sadly for its staff. Since then, the electricals group has had to shutter all of its physical stores, and sell exclusively online amid the lockdown. The impact hasn’t been as bad as many feared – it has replaced two-thirds of lost store revenues with online sales as shoppers bought home office and gaming equipment.

The company has been quick on its feet: trying to replicate the push to offer strong customer service online with employees offering live video shopping.

It has also been able to keep stores in the Nordics open and use them as a blueprint for how its UK shops may begin to reopen next month, with contactless payment and a drive-in click-and-collect service which sees shoppers pick up goods in the car park. It’s a tough road ahead, but Dixons has had a good crisis so far.

Morrisons

Britain’s grocers had to be the swiftest businesses to react to the virus crisis, to justify to government that they could safely be kept open while also dealing with extraordinary demand from panicked shoppers. Each showed swift innovation: Tesco quickly set up shop to assist NHS workers at the Nightingale hospitals while Sainsbury’s brought in a volunteer shopping card so vulnerable people who can’t leave the house could send someone to stores on their behalf. All adjusted hours to allow the vulnerable to shop alone.

Morrisons has perhaps showed the most innovation earliest: rewarding staff with increased bonuses, speeding up payments to small suppliers to stop them going bust and introducing dedicated hours for NHS workers to shop.

In store, it has also led the way in distancing measures, bringing in protective screens and priority “speedy shopper” queuing outside stores for those with baskets keen to get in and out quickly. Charged with feeding the nation, Britain’s grocers have stepped up to the plate.

John Fallon is chief executive at Pearson

Pearson

The publisher of educational books has spent years trying to reinvent itself for a digital world, adapting its old printed-books to digital lessons.

The journey is pretty much complete. So, when covid closed schools and forced teachers to do their jobs digitally, it already had the tools they needed, but had to teach teachers how to use them.

So, it launched a series of webinars for teachers, explaining how to use its products, potentially winning them over to the new possibilities forever.

In many countries, it gave away millions of pounds worth of teaching materials for free to help keep education going. That has paid dividends, with around half of the US lecturers and professors who used its freebie teaching materials have now confirmed they will use, and pay for, the products in the Fall term.

It also created in six weeks a series of 360 online courses aimed at teaching furloughed employees how to boost their skills or train for something new. From coding to engineering, it teamed up with Open University and a host of other educational establishments to get the courses online and make workers more valuable to employers.

ITV

Faced with the collapse in advertising revenues, ITV realised it had to get creative to retain and attract clients.

So, it started working on ways to provide extra bang for the advertiser’s buck by engaging TV viewers in the commercial-making process.

It launched a competition, where key advertisers’ commercials were shown, then members of the public were invited to make their own, personal versions of the ad.

The idea, taken up by advertisers including Honda, meant extra airtime for the brand, far more focus on the content and style of the ad, and a more engaged audience.

Homeserve

For a company that makes money from sending tradesmen in to fix your broken boiler or other appliances, a lockdown is about as bad it gets.

Nobody wants to let strangers into their homes unless it’s absolutely necessary.

However, Homeserve quickly worked out that it could still supply help in many cases by offering advice over the telephone in what it called “telefixes” and offering quotes for jobs via video.

Both innovations will continue to operate when the crisis is over, the company says.

Even the brokers at Lloyds of London have embraced change

Lloyd’s of London

Fountain pens and good old-fashioned shoe leather used to dominate the Lloyd’s market but a shutdown of its Underwriting Room due to coronavirus has triggered a massive acceleration of digital underwriting.

Instead of using ‘scratches’ – the term for an underwriters’ signature agreeing to insure a risk – Lloyd’s underwriters and brokers are either entering into contracts digitally using an online system called Placing Platform Limited (PPL) or using a special emergency trading protocol over email.

PPL, developed by US software giant Ebix, had a record week at the end of March, with 5,600 risks placed on the system.

The shake-up is encouraging for Lloyd’s, which has long tried to make the market more digital.

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