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Matt Howe - Managing Director, Blackhawk Network, Europe

Jul 2, 2020

It’s fair to say that 2020 probably isn’t the year that many of us imagined. I still find the interruption to our daily lives fascinating – to have gone from a bustling world of activity to a completely new normal in as little as four months still just seems so unreal.

Personally, the lockdown has given me the chance to spend more time with my family, travel less and remember what is most important in life. I know for many of my colleagues at Blackhawk Network, it’s not been the easiest of times, so I am proud of the way in which we’ve come together as one team to make it through.

As far as business goes, I’m pleased to see that in-store mall sales are returning to where we’d expect them to be. It’s clear that despite the world being uprooted, our industry lifeblood – the customers – still needed us in so many ways.

Gifting occasions never stopped. Lockdown didn’t erase birthdays and anniversaries. In fact, it even created a new reason to gift – the ‘just because’ or the ‘I’m thinking of you’ occasions. People not being able to see one another didn’t mean that they stopped caring. They simply adapted.

And so did we. As a business and a wider industry, we had to change our products, speed up our go-to-market strategies and find a way to keep ourselves relevant. The consumer had wants and needs that we had to answer; or face the consequences of getting left behind.

The answer in this extraordinary time of need was, of course, digital.

Many companies experienced exponential online growth from the demand of families looking for stay-at-home entertainment or shopping for essentials. Who isn’t now on a first-name basis with their postie or local delivery people?

At Blackhawk Network we have a range of products that we were able to pivot our focus towards. Digital reward platforms such as our Select or One4all Digital Gift Card propositions, our business and consumer eCommerce sites and the rapid development of new branded payment methods like our Virtual Prepaid Cards.

The growth of our digital channel, Cashstar, has been notable. With the increased demand on our partners who were not well equipped to scale up their existing solutions, our Cashstar team were able to step in and assist. As a result, we’re working with one of our partners to provide school meals vouchers and have already processed a value of around £90m, benefitting recipients UK-wide (with more to follow this summer due to the Marcus Rashford factor!).

I have to say that I am incredibly proud of the way in which our industry has gone above and beyond in supporting worthy causes wherever we have been able. From Eden Red’s national roll out of the free school meals vouchers, to the emergency fund created for thousands of front-line staff by Sodexo. The sheer number of charities that have been aided with the fulfilment of their grant schemes has been immense.

We saw reports that many organisations had received their usual annual application volume within weeks and simply didn’t have a sustainable method to distribute relief efficiently. We are proud that Blackhawk Network could offer cost-effective and instant solutions to help multiple charities provide grants to hundreds of additional beneficiaries. It’s been a pleasure to receive messages of thanks from the charities and their recipients alike.

In other areas, those of us running cycle to work schemes have seen substantial growth in the past few weeks following the government advice to get back on two wheels. We’re ecstatic to report that Cyclescheme has seen a 472% rise in employer registrations YoY and our sales are up by 128% for the four weeks into mid-June. This goes a long way towards our core aim of facilitating a higher percentage of the UK workforce to enjoy cycling, with the desirable benefits of improved mental and physical health.

So, looking to the future. This new world in which we are just beginning to understand will continue to adapt quickly. We need to stay ahead of the curve and continue to drive the digital evolution that has begun.

Single retailers have been hit hard (not just by Covid-19) and it’s possible that we’ll sadly see many more brands disappear from our high street in the coming months. As a result, I see a big future in multi-retailer solutions, providing not only choice, but stability for the recipient.

At Blackhawk Network, we are now looking at how to further digitise our products, so that their usage encompasses an increase in (safe) footfall. As an industry, we have a challenge to change the mindset of the consumer, so that they see the value in returning to the physical experience, whilst utilising emerging payment methods that promote an efficient, easy and hygienic redemption.

In summary: Assume this ‘thing’ is here to stay. Demand will continue. Embrace the digital age.

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