Innovation in Response to COVID-19
Innovation in Response to COVID-19
Over the past few months, more than a fifth of the world’s population has been under lockdown. As restrictions are now eased, we are finding our fit in this new space and in turn the innovative, transformational opportunities that are redefining our retail landscape.

There can be no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the rate of change and significantly increased the development of certain trends. As the situation remains unpredictable and will undoubtedly remain so for some time to come, we observe shifts in attitudes and behaviours with consumers developing a new set of values around safety and convenience. Common sense tells us that a change in need requires a change in response, so the challenge is to find innovative ways to build consumer confidence for the long-term.

Rudi Nienaber, Innovation Executive at Smollan


Recently, Smollan prepared a short report to take a closer look at how brands and retailers are innovating and building consumer confidence, by exploring insights into health and hygiene, proximity, finances, and collaboration.

Health & Hygiene

Over the course of the pandemic the public have called on businesses the world over to place safety and wellbeing of their employees first and fore-most along with that of their consumers. Based on this response, Amazon for example have commenced building a COVID-19 testing lab for employees. While China’s Alibaba QR Code App allows for citizens to complete a health survey with results providing a colour code, indicating whether or not the user is fit to leave their house without posing a risk to others.

As sanitisation and hygiene become a top priority in all public spaces the demand for products have increased dramatically which necessitated a dynamic shift in how businesses operate. Alcoholic companies around the world have repurposed production lines to manufacture sanitiser instead of drinks. Beauty brands have done much the same. Product innovations have included simple opensource designs for essential facemasks to travel jumpsuits. Sanitisation tunnels, specialised cleaning companies, contactless and card-less payment solutions and facial recognition are pushing new boundaries to help combat the spread of the virus.


People are choosing to ‘stick close to home’ and seek out products in spaces that stores do not usually service. In South Africa, Smollan has created Gwalisa a small vending machine designed for spaza shops that allows consumers to choose and pay for the amount they need. While a similar vending solution is offered in Vietnam where an ATM distributes rice. Nano containers, portable stores that can be moved to wherever they are needed, are seeing a rise in popularity with ABC on Wheels in Poland offering a mobile shopping experience direct to your door.

eCommerce has allowed many consumers to continue with ‘normal spend behaviours’ with many businesses shifting their operations and services online. With demand surging, Woolworths in Australia turned 100 supermarkets into priority delivery hubs while Carrefour in France launched an online service offering essential-product-kits, as they tried to reduce the high level of shoppers on their main website. Starship an Estonian delivery company, now deploys robots to deliver groceries and takeaway food, bringing the term ‘future fit’ to life.

Technology has been key in developing applications to not only assist with proximity but also act as information hubs, for example being able to log how busy shops are to help avoid congestion in-store. Rombit have pushed the envelope by creating the Romware Covid Radius, a digital bracelet that ensures social distancing and allows contact tracing. Many stores have been redesigned around issues of proximity and in the US, United Supermarkets reconfigured their aisles for one-way traffic system.

Brands are also using Instagram and Tik Tok to release new products, present live activations or run promotions. Enabled by tech and a plethora of digital platforms, it is now possible to shop, work and connect from home.


We are starting to see increased levels of public discontent, and the rising potential of legal challenges to government action. This pressure may lead to an accelerated risk adjusted relaxation, less viral containment and ultimately a bumpier road to recovery. To encourage consumer spend, innovative companies are helping consumers to be more charitable to help small businesses cover their costs.

Pick Pay in South Africa sells vouchers that can be sent via SMS, allowing consumers to help those who may be struggling. Yoco, a South African payment solutions company, launched a suite of online solutions for merchants to help sustain their cash flow. Key to sustaining a business during this pandemic, is to realise the importance of developing innovative initiatives that present sustainable solutions that will serve beyond the time of Corona.


Businesses, whether through internal moves to support different countries or divisions, to cross-category options to meet new consumer demands and partnering with competitors, have had to re-engineer their operating environments. Through collaboration, companies have shared knowledge, shared services, shared resources, shared workloads and helped ensure supply chain stability.

Pick n Pay South Africa, partnered with liquor delivery company Bottles, to extend their on-demand offering into groceries, enabling the company the chance to generate revenue as an essential service provider. UberEATS have added new product categories to their database and it is now possible to order books through them.

These initiatives and routes to market will shift the existing lay of the land and open new sales and fulfilment channels that outlast the pandemic.