By Mourad Ajarti, Chief Information Officer, Coca-Cola HBC

Technology has opened a world of opportunities as we seek to offer the widest choice of refreshment to suit every occasion around the clock – delivered in the right package and the right place.

As we do this across 28 countries on three continents, the logistics of our business are immense. Not only do we need sophisticated supply chains to get our products onto customers’ shelves, we also need to anticipate their needs in a fast-changing marketplace. 

We have been serving our customers for the past 70 years, but today, and specifically in the midst of the pandemic, we need to be smarter and more customer-centric than ever. Technology is key to achieving this, which is why we are rapidly growing our use of advanced digital tools and ramping up our investment in new technology. 

Responding to the e-commerce boom

Like many consumer goods companies, we have seen online sales soar over the past year – with a 60% growth in our e-commerce revenue in 2020 compared to 2019. Although online sales are still a relatively small part of our business, the pandemic dramatically accelerated our activity and investment in e-commerce, as we helped many of our customers adapt to the new online shopping environment.

For example, we tapped into the rapid growth in online food orders by teaming up with food delivery companies to offer food and drink combinations. We helped some of our customers sell more online, for example, by improving their ‘digital shelf’ merchandising, and we invested in our own B2B e-commerce channels so customers can order products directly from us online. 

Advanced data analytics 

Big data is central to our technology transformation. We are rapidly advancing our processes and platforms for ingesting, storing and analysing data and stepping up our capabilities in machine learning and artificial intelligence. 

For example, with advanced data analytics we can segment sales data by location and type of outlet. Taking it a step further, we can predict what consumers in that local area might like to buy – including new product launches in our portfolio – and where they are most likely to buy them.

This is helping us capture new growth opportunities, create more value for our customers, and grow choice for consumers. We are successfully using this approach in Nigeria, one of our biggest and most fragmented markets, with many small outlets serving local communities. Data analytics give us a detailed view of this complex customer landscape, helping us create new value with our customers by anticipating and meeting their different needs. 

We are currently expanding this enhanced analytics model to more of our countries and taking an ever-more sophisticated approach. We use machine learning, for example, to streamline our inventory management, ensuring we have the right drinks on the right shelves, so reducing the chance of our products going out of stock. 

We can also use AI to keep our supply chains running smoothly, through real-time transport tracking and traffic monitoring. Meanwhile, in our production plants and warehouses we’re using augmented reality to maintain our machinery and improve the accuracy of stock-picking. 

Connected coolers of the future

Even our coolers can play a part in our technology revolution. By making our coolers ‘smart’ and connecting them into a network, we can use them to monitor product availability, quality and visibility and capture data on pricing, temperature and energy use. We currently have 600,000 connected coolers in our markets, sharing data in real-time, with a plan to connect more than a million. 

Soon, our smart coolers will be able to do even more, such as deliver precision-targeted coupons, tailored to the consumption patterns of a specific location.

Our coolers are not the only ‘eyes’ we have in many of our customers’ stores. We can also use image-recognition software to perform automated product audits, replacing the need for this to be done manually. Currently, we can process 900,000 images each month with over 95% accuracy.

Investing in the engine room

To support our use of new digital tools and innovations, we are modernising our back-office systems and processes. This includes a major investment in the next-generation ERP system SAP S/4HANA. This is the core engine for all our business processes and will play a critical role in enabling our future growth. This advanced platform offers far more possibility for data analytics, real-time decision support, simulation and automation. It improves our services by simplifying processes and makes us more responsive to our customers, serving them better and faster.

Going live with S/4 happened in March this year, with a multi-function team delivering a 28-country ‘big bang’ conversion. This was quite an achievement in the middle of the pandemic, with everyone working from home, but we overcame challenges to deliver a smooth and successful transition.

Capability building of our smartest assets

As we transform our business through innovation and digitalisation, we are not only investing in new processes and tools – we’re also building the skills of our people. Training, bootcamps and capability development is a priority – not only within our technical teams, but across the whole organisation.

This radical digital evolution shows what it takes, in today’s ultra-connected world, to make sure that our customers will always have the right drinks, served at the right time and in the right place, to keep hundreds of millions of consumers refreshed – today, tomorrow and for years to come.