COVID-19: “It Was a Case of Adapt or Die” – How the Bottles App Pivoted From Alcohol to Grocery Deliveries

Updated on 4 May 2020

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Just a few weeks ago Bottles App was South Africa’s first and largest on-demand alcohol delivery app and service. Today they are also the fastest growing grocery delivery app, in partnership with Pick ‘n Pay thanks to an impressive pivot strategy.

The Bottles App was founded in 2016 by Vincent Viviers and Enrico Ferigolli. Viviers graduated from the University of Cape Town with a Business Science Honours Degree in marketing, before heading to Unilever and Google where he gained retail and tech experience. Ferigolli previously worked at Unilever in Italy and South Africa and Gorilla Creative Media.

The business took off after they successfully pitched their startup on the business reality TV show, Shark Tank. In mid-2018, Bottles partnered with Pick ‘n Pay Liquor to scale their beverage delivery business and cement their place as the leading on-demand alcohol delivery service in the country. It sourced from over 60 Pick n Pay Liquor stores nationwide.

Bottles app co-founders
Bottles app co-founders, Vincent Viviers and Enrico Ferigolli.

Then came COVID-19

Pre-empting the lockdown and Government’s ban on alcohol, the business leveraged its existing relationship with Pick n Pay. The team quickly shifted, moving the business to an on-demand grocery essentials app, offering same-day delivery, and business quickly boomed.

The service offers contactless same-day delivery, with an average delivery time of under 90 minutes.

They have since pivoted the business in response to changing market conditions in the post-Corona world. The result? According to the founders they have more than doubled their reach and trebled their volume of orders in two weeks.

The new Grocery Essentials service offering has expanded across more than 90 Pick n Pay stores across Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Bloemfontein. There are also  plans to expand to Port Elizabeth, East London, Nelspruit and many other cities in the next four weeks. The range was also extended to over 1,500 products and more continues to be added every week, based on customer demand.

The objective of keeping people safe in their homes while being able to shop for grocery essentials was such a compelling and exciting goal

On the Bottles App business model before Covid-19 and lockdown

We first partnered with PnP Liquor in mid-2018 after looking for a retailer to help scale our business in beverage delivery.

Our business model is similar to restaurant delivery apps:

  • We partner with existing PnP Liquor stores and deliver in a 5km radius around each store.
  • Clients place their order via our app. The order is sent to the liquor store to prepare. Our driver then collects and delivers to the client, all within 60 minutes (our average was 40 minutes pre lockdown).
  • We take a commission for every order we bring to the retailer
  • We also work directly with brands to help them drive their sales via our platform

 On what the Bottles App business model looks like today

The business model works the same as on liquor, but we now offer grocery essentials from the PnP grocery store instead of the liquor store, with our delivery timing being same day instead of under 60 minutes. Even with the massive growth in demand, we have managed to get our average delivery timing to under 90 minutes.

 On the initial reaction to Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown

After our President first addressed the nation, we quickly prepared for our entire team to work from home, ensuring they had access to the internet and phones to continue to operate our business.

When it was announced that the selling of alcohol was prohibited during lockdown, it made sense for us and Pick n Pay to start delivery grocery essentials.

The objective of keeping people safe in their homes while being able to shop for grocery essentials was such a compelling and exciting goal that it saw us execute the idea in a matter of days.

 What went into the decision to change the business model

It was a case of adapt or die. We knew we needed to pivot our business to survive.  Our first priority was our existing employees and contractors, we have also been able to retain all and even create more job opportunities at a time when many small businesses are mulling retrenchments and downsizing.

We also felt that as an e-commerce business, we had a role to play to help people stay safe in their homes by having essential products delivered.

On tools, technology and resources that were instrumental in helping the business to pivot

Our existing relationship with Pick n Pay meant that our systems were already integrated from a stock management, invoicing and reconciliation point of view. Because of this unique advantage, we had the ability to start listing and selling grocery items on the Bottles app very quickly.

Some of the tweaks included defining the right mix of essential groceries customers would want from a same day delivery service. We also had to move fast to train our drivers on contactless delivery and hygiene protocols.

On the soft skills and additional skills that were also necessary

 We are living in very difficult and uncertain times, and I think this puts a lot of pressure and anxiety on all of us. Since we had moved our entire team to working from home pre-lockdown already meant that our team needed to learn new ways of working together remotely – how to communicate, motivate and collaborate on tasks etc.

We were put under a lot of time pressure to pivot our business to survive. Our team really came together in a difficult time, showing a strong bias for action, agility and EQ.

COVID-19 has in the space of a few weeks accelerated the e-commerce adoption curve by several years

On the top 3 biggest challenges encountered during the process

 As our volume trebled in a matter of days, we encountered a few challenges that our team had to overcome on the fly.

The main challenge was that the increased volume was putting a lot of pressure on the existing store footprint of 50 stores and, because of COVID, we were unable to travel to the stores to train them on the system. So we had to devise a plan to train the store teams remotely and on-the-job, while doubling our footprint in just a few days.

Another challenge we faced was that our user experience did not account for the complexity and the frequent unavailability of grocery. So again, in a matter of days, we have had to build an in-app out of stock substitution functionality to allow users to choose replacements for missing items. This is something that we are launching on May 1st.

On the top 3 biggest lessons learned and that they could share with other business owners who may be in the same position

  • Anything is possible – We have been able to run projects planned to last for weeks and months in a matter of days by speeding up the decision making and cutting to the key problem we were trying to fix.
  • Manage expectations, explain and be honest – They say the customer is always right and we couldn’t agree more. But we also need to acknowledge that most customers don’t just complain because they enjoy doing it, customers usually complain because their expectations are not met. In such a difficult environment like COVID-19, marred by limited stock availability and increased security measures, we acted fast to communicate to our users to expect delays and explain the challenges and difficult conditions our drivers and store staff were operating under.
  • Communicating in an honest and transparent manner helps manage expectations and for your customers to understand and walk the journey with you, without them feeling you are hiding issues or covering up mistakes.

On what post-Covid-19 Bottles look like?

COVID-19 has in the space of a few weeks accelerated the e-commerce adoption curve by several years. With relaxed lockdown restrictions expected to continue for some time, coupled with the need to keep people safe at home and falling data prices, we believe e-commerce will continue to grow rapidly.

We will continue to deliver groceries in partnership with Pick n Pay, increasing our range to offer more products at instore prices. Our average delivery time is around 90 minutes at present and we will continue to drive this down. We will also continue to improve our technology to make our app and operations better.


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