The incredible turnaround that led to Asda online winning The Grocer's Star Order in January reflects 18 months of hard work, says Julian Hunt

Regular readers of The Grocer&'s quarterly online shopping survey will have spotted that we have recently been reporting on what must surely be one of the great comebacks in grocery retailing. Four years ago, Asda&'s online operation was a shambles and consistently at the bottom of our survey. But by this January, things had changed beyond all recognition and we presented the retailer with our Star Order. It&'s not been a one-off either: just last month we again praised the service for being &'spot on&', particularly when it came to substitutions.
Richard Ramsden, who heads the retailer&'s home shopping business, says this incredible turnaround reflects 18 months or so of hard work: &"There has been an awful lot going on in the past couple of years. But the one thing we have changed is to become more customer focused.
&"We are now seeing what we have put in place bearing fruit. We are hitting profit plan for the first time in five years and are hitting our like-for-like sales plans. And customers are telling us that we are doing a good job.&"
Ramsden says that&'s because he and his colleagues have focused on every aspect of the site. They have improved the admin support so that product listings are 99.9% correct all the time, for instance, and introduced smarter themed e-marketing that keeps customers coming back. Stung by criticism of poor service levels, there has also been a real emphasis on improving the training offered to all those involved in the operation. Ramsden says: &"Call ­centre staff understand the system and how it works. We have an incentive scheme to make sure pickers are doing the best job they can and choosing products as a customer would, and we make sure drivers know to call if they are running late.&"
One of the biggest things Asda did was change the way delivery slots are allocated to customers. Two years back, customers were segmented based on where they lived; now all slots are available to all customers. The result? Customers&' perceptions have improved and a three-day wait for deliveries has been cut to just one day. Ramsden says: &"Most customers can now order for the next day.&"
Asda has also introduced a flexible delivery charge. If you spend more than £50 on Monday to Thursday, delivery costs £1.95 in the morning, it&'s free in the afternoon and just £3.95 in the evening. That&'s gone down well with the punters and Rams­den says it has also encouraged shoppers to take deli­veries outside the weekend times, so improving the availability of delivery slots at peak times.
One of the things The Grocer&'s mystery shoppers really like about Asda&'s service is its policy of charging the price of the original item when a more expensive product has to be used for any substitution.
As someone once said, &'Every Little Helps&'. And Ramsden says it&'s important for Asda to get things right: &"The demographic profile of our online business is almost identical to that of - so our focus on value for money is key, as is making sure our service is the best in the industry.&"
Asda continues to add new ideas to the site - such as a clever feature that defines portion sizes in fresh veg so you know exactly how much to order. The ­retailer is also engaging with suppliers a lot more to develop its categories online and is working with colleagues on Wal-Mart&'s site to improve the offer.
Ramsden promises: &"Over the next 12 months you will see dramatic improvements to the site that will benefit customers considerably.&"
In the future, expansion is a priority. While non food is offered nationally, about 45% of the population can be reached by the grocery service. Rams­den says: &"Long term, we do want to get to national coverage on grocery as well. We don&'t have a time­scale; we believe that we can get 90% coverage with our existing store base.&"n