How Foodstuffs North Island’s IT team weathered recent NZ storms to keep stores operational

New Zealand’s start to 2023 has been challenging, with Auckland hit by torrential flooding in January followed by Cyclone Gabrielle in February, which left a trail of destruction across Northland, Hawkes Bay, and the East Coast.

For Foodstuffs North Island, the supermarket cooperative behind well-known brands like New World, Pak’nSave, and Four Square, several of their stores were cut off, damaged, and without connectivity as a result.

Simon Kennedy, the company’s CDO, says his team performed “minor miracles” to maintain operational flow and provide access to essential supplies for affected communities.

Kennedy said they had their first trial run getting trading up and running during an emergency following Cyclone Hale, which impacted parts of the East Cape in mid-January. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) contacted Foodstuffs after the cyclone made landfall in the region. Three communities were cut off by road, preventing supplies getting in, and there was no power or cellular coverage.

“With cash the only option and communities running out, it was beginning to look quite dicey in terms of supply and, in this situation, transacting,” says Kennedy.

The team examined ways of getting non-cash transacting up and running while the area remained without power and cell-phone coverage. They decided to source some Starlink machines, but the current ones only connected wirelessly so they needed to think how to connect them to their store Eftpos terminals, which use ethernet.  Then came the challenge of how to get the kit out to the affected stores with the roads cut off.

Consumer-grade Starlinks were sourced in retail outlet Noel Leemings in Gisborne, but they were unable to pay for the units online and get them delivered. The Foodstuffs team called on the Pak’nSave owner down the road who got his team to get the Starlinks and pay for them.   

A local Datacom field tech, contracted to Foodstuffs, configured the devices, along with some wireless Eftpos machines, and was taken by NEMA on a light aircraft to get equipment to the Four Square stores in Te Araraoa and Hikurangi Ruatoria, along with emergency supplies to be dropped in the area.

“It doesn’t sound like a dramatic step but [it] actually was to get these Four Square stores back, trading on something other than cash for communities that were running out of cash,” adds Kennedy.

The incident, as a result, prompted him and a small team to start work on a strategic plan to address emergency situations and contingencies to keep stores operational for customers.

Crisis management mode engaged

However, just a couple of weeks later, Auckland was hit by an unprecedented flooding event that killed four people and affected thousands of homes and businesses. 

Some of the most dramatic pictures from that time were at Pak’nSave in Wairau Park, with the store almost completely submerged and people climbing up high shelves to escape the deluge. But within a week, the Wairau Park store was open again. Kennedy says it was an incredible job to deliver what was, in effect, a store opening program in six and a half days. 

“Those on the forefront of the cyclones from my team were also the people who performed, frankly, minor miracles to get the Auckland flooded stores back up and running,” says Kennedy. “The whole store had to be lifted out, cleaned multiple times, and restocked. From an IT point of view, all the checkout cabling and self-checkouts had to be upgraded to gel-based waterproof cabling, and devices were refitted, and back-of-house equipment was reset.”

With Cyclone Gabrielle looming a couple of weeks later in February, Foodstuffs initiated its crisis management process. The cross-functional collaboration across the business was used during the Covid-19 response and is rolled out for acute events such as severe weather.

The impact of the cyclone on Northland, parts of Auckland’s west coast, Coromandel, Hawkes Bay and the East Coast became apparent in the days that followed. Flooding was widespread, thousands of homes and businesses were damaged, and many areas were cut off due to landslides and washed-out bridges. Power outages were extensive, too, and cell-phone coverage was again affected in many areas, all of which led to the declaration of a national state of emergency.

At the peak of the cyclone aftermath, 74 Foodstuffs stores in the region were affected, and the organisation kicked into crisis management recovery mode. This meant, “keeping our customers safe, and our team members safe,” says Kennedy. “Then we had to think about how to maintain our ability to trade, how to get the supply chain back up and running, and how to deal with road closures.”

Again, came the technology challenge of how to get the stores operational and how to get them reconnected and trading sustainably.

“The work that steadily went on to figure out how we might use Starlink in a network pattern hadn’t reached the end but here we were needing something,” he says. “It was then that the amazing piece of technical work from people in my team came together and tried to figure it out.”

The team of 30 from IT operations and security, architecture, enterprise systems, and customer digital products worked through a process to hash out the concept and then scrutinised it from a security and performance point of view. They then set up an environment to see if it would work in theory, ran tests and made the changes required across various network settings and firewalls that would make it possible to deploy. 

The team deployed the network pattern to its first store to ensure it worked in a live environment. The store happened to be Gisborne Pak’nSave, the supermarket that came to the aid of the Four Square in the earlier cyclone event. 

The solution was then rolled out more widely and the work the team not only allowed trading on cards on wired and wireless Eftpos machines, but it also got all their backend systems, self checkouts, and fuel systems for larger supermarkets with petrol stations on-site. 

“It was a really neat piece of engineering design, but it also [showed] real tenacity to get it done,” he says “We eventually deployed that solution to eight stores. For quite a few of them, a field tech went out on helicopters to get it up and running.”

They even enlisted the help of the organisation’s CEO Chris Quin to get Eftpos units delivered when he was making a trip by chopper to stores that were cut off by road access. 

As power was restored and cell service resumed over the following days, the need for the solution lessened, but Kennedy points out that for a period of 24 to 72 hours, the work the team did meant the difference between a store being able to operate or not.  

But the temporary solution they came up with is not sustainable, Kennedy points out. After moving out of crisis response mode, the team now works on how to design a robust solution that can be deployed in the event of another emergency. They’ll also need to ensure that whatever contingencies they come up with remain current and able to help their stores in areas more vulnerable to severe weather events.

“Yes, we’ve been able to do something really fast, but that’s because we’ve got a consistent network pattern across our stores that we can rely on where it’s deployed,” says Kennedy. “We’ve got a notable team that knows that inside and out, and we’ve got the kind of culture that means people will go the extra mile and make things happen.”

Emerging Technology, IT Leadership