If Simon Roberts was hoping for a quiet weekend, it was clear early on Saturday it would be anything but. That’s because it was all hands on deck after an overnight software update left Sainsbury’s facing a significant IT crisis.

And it wasn’t the only food giant to suffer tech issues, with Tesco experiencing a smaller and “unrelated” matter with number of online orders. However, as IT bungles go, Sainsbury’s had the potential to be pretty mega.

The glitch left drivers unable to deliver potentially thousands of online orders, on what is typically one of the busiest days of the week. Even worse, it left stores at a local level unable to update customers, anxious about the food delivery needed to fuel their looming weekend dinner party or Six Nations plans.

Perhaps more worryingly, the issue affected customers’ ability to pay, with contactless down across a significant number of Sainsbury’s shops for most of Saturday.

In reality, few customers are going to have a major issue with having to resort to cash or enter their pin number when paying. But such complications no doubt increase the chance for opportunistic theft, and apply more pressure to store staff, already facing rising levels of abuse and violence.

Crises happen, they’re unavoidable. Computers are not infallible and sometimes, even often, they go wrong. As supermarkets rush to become increasingly efficient digital machines, IT issues are likely to become more common.

Sainsbury’s CEO Simon Roberts apologises 

The majority of customers also accept this. What they won’t accept is when supermarkets react poorly. Retail is about optics, and customers will remember how a company responds.

On balance, Sainsbury’s and Roberts got this one right and the issue will blow over – if it hasn’t already.

As early as 8.30am, notifications appeared across Sainsbury’s social media channels notifying customers of the issue. Crucially, it apologised for inconvenience and added updates to the thread when more was known.

With the company unable to contact customers individually, Roberts personally apologised to “you and every customer” in an email on Saturday afternoon. He acknowledged the “inconvenient” disruption to their weekend and for the busyness of Sainsbury’s call centres.

By Saturday afternoon, though many national papers’ headlines were still speaking of meltdowns in Sainsbury’s stores, the issue had been resolved.

However, not content to leave it at that, Roberts then wrote to customers on Sunday to again apologise, and stress that Sainsbury’s would compensate all affected customers with vouchers over the next couple of days.

Sainsbury’s Next Level strategy

The contrition, whether it had personally been written by Roberts or merely signed off, would have resonated with customers.

Sainsbury’s confirmed to The Grocer on Monday morning its systems continue to operate correctly. But it’s not out of the woods yet. Companies go through potentially hundreds of successful IT software updates, and Sainsbury’s hasn’t revealed what went wrong with this one. 

As much as it’s a lesson of what can go wrong, and how to respond, this weekend serves as another reminder of just how much customers value a human face – even more so in a crisis.

Many of the frustrations expressed in the reams of comments across Sainsbury’s channels relate to not being able to get through to Sainsbury’s swamped contact centres or speak to a person about their order.

It’s a lesson Roberts should heed as he cracks on with Sainsbury’s Next Level strategy, which will in part focus on increasing automation across the business. Last month, Sainsbury’s announced the first 1,500 job cuts under the new strategy, across HQ, customer service and in-store teams.

The computer might say no, but customers would still appreciate if there’s a person there to apologise for it.