Have you got the hang of hybrid shopping?

As individuals and as households, what and how we buy has changed.  Is the same true for rural businesses? Helen Whittle, AF Chief Procurement & Commercial Officer, reflects on what’s happened and where it will take us next.

Buying can be a pleasure. There’s conversation. There’s choice. There may even be the banter of a good haggle. However, buying essentials we need can also be a hassle: a repetitious, time-consuming transaction that has to be done when it suits the vendor rather than the buyer.

One click 24/7: the ultimate convenience

No wonder online retail took off so fast. We have quickly become accustomed to being able to shop for what we want (or even what we didn’t know we wanted!) whenever we choose – and delivered fast.

That’s why in our business, procurement of essential inputs for farms and other rural businesses across the UK, we wanted to make buying easier for our Members. We have started by making fuel procurement digital with AF Online. Fuels can be chosen and ordered by our Members anytime and anywhere, at the same price as they would get if they called into the AF office.

It’s certainly hit the spot. Now around 6% of fuel is ordered online with around 17% of those orders already being placed outside of business hours. We expect this figure to increase as our farmer Members get busy with harvest this summer. The Member who made the order taking us over the milestone of a million litres of fuel bought this way is an East Anglian. Mike England from Alby Produce placed his order, parked on a road verge at 4.45pm because he was busy and needed to order it online there and then. He welcomes the opportunity to buy online anytime, anywhere that suits him. It’s easier for the buyer, the buying group and the supplier.

Service scores lower for humans

Getting better is the motivation for digitising the customer experience in other ways. Writing in The Times of London recently, CEO of energy retailer Octopus Energy revealed that their automated answer giver (Chatbot) does the work of 250 call handling staff. He said “Emails written by AI delivered 80% customer satisfaction — comfortably better than the 65% achieved by skilled, trained people.”

There’s more evidence of the takeover by AI. In specialist procurement magazine Supply Management, a recent article describes how the sourcing and tracking of many millions of items in supply chains, including those to farms and other rural businesses, is fast becoming a reality. Will Phillips writes “some experts believe it has the potential to transform procurement across everything from data analysis to support procurement pricing, supply issues and inventory monitoring, dealing with customers and, of course, producing content.”

The age of hybrid purchasing

As buyers, we have probably all gained to some extent by the changes in how we buy. But some feel we are losing too, that we miss the human interaction. Hence, hybrid procurement is what’s happening.

There are some goods and services that our Members want to mull over with us. They want our insights and advice. They want to know what others are choosing, our analysis of which product offers better value. It feels good to ‘kick tyres’, have someone ask how the day is going and if an earlier purchase decision went OK.

Is hybrid here to stay? It looks like it. Buying with a tap, click or press (or two) suits many of us for an increasing proportion of products and service we need. But, for many people and for a significant proportion of the rural business inputs we serve, there is still a high value on buying with, and from, people and a conversation.

Whatever the transaction, online or in person, only if it’s a pleasant and useful experience will the customer keep coming back.

Helen Whittle Chief Procurement & Commercial Officer

helen.whittle@af.farm 01603 881 881

Whittle, H. 2023. Online advances means the way farmers buy goods is changing fast. East Anglian Daily Times. 3rd June.