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Becoming the Best Digital Grocer in Town

Metcash, Australia’s leading wholesale distributor, leveraged WP Engine and a headless WordPress configuration to ensure the most vulnerable members of society would have access to food and other essentials during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Industry: Retail/Wholesale


Challenge: Quickly launch an online grocery and delivery service for thousands of independent retailers (who lacked such digital storefronts) in response to a government-led initiative aimed at helping elderly and immunocompromised Australians access food and other essential goods and supplies.

Solution: Metcash worked with WP Engine to build a headless WordPress site, integrated with WooCommerce for online sales, that allowed customers to buy food and essential products AND schedule contactless deliveries.

Results: Metcash built and launched the new site in record time, deploying a simple user experience that its independent retailers could easily adopt and start using. Most importantly, the site has provided tens of thousands of Australians with safe and secure access to food and other essential goods when they've needed it the most

Metcash is Australia’s leading wholesale distribution and marketing company with sales of over $13 billion in FY20. Metcash believes it is absolutely vital to Australia that there is a sustainable, independent, family-owned business sector. Independent retailers support their local communities, Metcash helps them be the "Best Store in Town" by providing merchandising, operational, and marketing support across food, liquor, and hardware.

"WP Engine was fantastic and came back to us in a handful of hours with their recommendations. They aligned exactly with what we were hoping for, so we pulled the trigger, and had an early iteration of our site up and running in a matter of hours."

—–Marc Keegan, Senior Manager of Digital Transformation, Metcash 

Addressing a multi-pronged challenge. 

The Covid-19 pandemic caught most of the world off guard, and in many countries, early government action was needed to help the most vulnerable (elderly, immunocompromised) maintain access to groceries and other essential goods without unnecessary exposure to the virus. 

This was precisely the case in Australia, where, during the first weeks of quarantine, State and Federal government agencies reached out to business leaders for help in providing vulnerable members of the community with an easy way to order groceries and other supplies online, and then have those items safely delivered to their homes.  

Metcash, which is Australia’s largest wholesale distribution and marketing company, was a key player in this effort. Supporting more than 1,600 independent grocery stores, 2,700 independent liquor retailers, and more than 650 hardware stores around the country, the wholesaler was well-positioned to lend a hand.

In response to the government initiative, Metcash’s development team jumped into action, looking for the best way they could quickly build and launch an online storefront that could be used by the independent grocers and provide shoppers with the ability to make their needed selections via computer or smartphone, communicate with their local store, and check out, all from the comfort—and safety—of their own homes.

The challenges were many, and Metcash did not have the luxury of much time. While the technical build was one aspect, nationwide disrupted supply chains and product shortages presented additional challenges.

Meanwhile, the Metcash team needed to find a way for the site to incorporate the pricing variables that fluctuate between the wholesaler’s different affiliated regional stores.

Finally, as the government requirement was to guarantee that the most vulnerable would have direct access to goods and supplies, an identity management system that could verify who was signing into the site was equally important.

With all of these challenges bearing down, Metcash had the confidence to turn, once again, to the WP Engine platform and its award-winning support for this critical national project. 

Building a practical digital solution quickly.

Leveraging its existing relationship with WP Engine, which Metcash relies on for its corporate site, careers sites, and its loyalty program, the company began evaluating a headless WordPress build; meaning, the visual, front end of the site (in this case, the retailer order management system), was built using a Javascript library (React) and decoupled from the back end, which runs on WordPress.

“We explained what we were looking to do, and we provided a bit of background on what we expected to happen as far as traffic and the number of users that might come to the site,” said Marc Keegan, Senior Manager of Digital Transformation at Metcash. 

“WP Engine was fantastic and came back to us in a handful of hours with their recommendations. They aligned exactly with what we were hoping for, so we pulled the trigger, and had our site up and running, without the niche customizations, within a couple of hours.”

Some of those niche customizations included an identity access system and interface built out by Metcash’s marketing technology team, which, in addition to verifying who was able to sign on as a customer, allowed retailers to sign in to the system and manage logistics. One of the many benefits of the  headless configuration was that each retailer had a unique login and a unique interface, which kept each grocer’s order information distinct and meant there was no need to integrate anything with WordPress on their end or have their independent retailers touch WordPress at all.

“We launched seven days after WP Engine got involved,” Keegan added. “It was pretty quick— there were a lot of late nights, but we got it done.” 

At launch, Metcash made four product packages available for customers to choose from: an essentials pack, a more extensive pantry pack that would care for four people, and packs to cover pets.

From there, after the site was live, Metcash was able to continue building product packages out and expanding its offerings, adding new products and available goods over the coming weeks.

“We've been adding to it ever since,” Keegan said. “WordPress is fantastically flexible for handling that type of need, to the point where we were able to start with four product offerings and quickly expand to more than 1,800.”

The Results

From the moment the site launched, it became relied upon as a critical channel for getting those in need the essential supplies they required.

“At the very beginning, we had thousands of people registering for the site on certain days,” Keegan said. “We have about 30,000 people registered now with another 20,000 people who ultimately didn’t meet the criteria.”

He also pointed to the ability of the WP Engine platform to support a headless architecture as an important component of the eventual success of the project.  

“The headless approach allowed us to move quickly and make things easier for our retailers, and it let them simply do what they needed to do to operate,” he said.

“Just to be able to provide them with one single interface, which was custom built for them, where they didn’t have to worry about all of the other pieces operating in the background, we felt we were able to give them the storefront they needed to operate.”

Keegan added that he and his team had already received a lot of positive feedback from the local communities their retailers operate in, and especially from the vulnerable shoppers who most needed help and support. 

In addition to building the site, Metcash set up a call centre with a toll-free phone number for people to call if they had problems placing an order or were unfamiliar with shopping online. That’s where the stories came in.

“We had elderly shoppers who would go through the site and understand what it's all about and understand the options we had made available,’ Keegan said. “But they needed help checking out. They would make a call and we helped them through those conversations no matter how long was needed.”

“These were stories of people recovering from illnesses who were afraid to go outside,” he said. 

“That's where our retailers really excelled. They handled the last-mile delivery of those products themselves. They would go out and make sure that those people were taken care of and make sure the food packages that we had available were being properly packed for them. This was incredibly important when you consider that sometimes, in more rural areas, that delivery was an hour away, so round trip, you’re looking at two hours.”

At the end of the day, Keegan explained, the fast site build and ability to respond to the urgent need of vulnerable shoppers was an excellent result of the partnership between Metcash and WP Engine, not to mention, a great proof of concept for a fast, headless build using WordPress.

But when it really came down to it, the close-knit community that Metcash has created through its network of retailers and their employees was what shined through, along with their willingness to lend a hand and help.

“Our aim was to make sure people weren’t going hungry,” Keegan said.  “And in that, we most certainly accomplished our goal.”

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