By Macharia Kamau
When the history of corporate Kenya is written, Uchumi Supermarkets and its chief executive Jonathan Ciano will without doubt get a special mention in the chapter on receivership.
The chain, placed under receivership in 2006, emerged from a state where many firms have failed, a factor that has been attributed to legislation that gives debtors a leeway to dispose property of a company in receivership without efforts to resuscitate it.
At the time of going into receivership, Uchumi owed suppliers in excess of Sh1.8 billion. While they had the option to wind up the firm, they supported revival plans and continued to stock outlets.
Uchumi also owed Kenya Commercial Bank and PTA close to Sh1 billion.
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"Brand loyalty in retail business is pegged on a shopper finding what they are looking for. If one visits an outlet several times and an item they are looking for is always out of stock, chances are high they will never come back," says Joanne Mwangi, CEO of Professional Marketing Services (a member of the PMS Group).
"Upon reopening selected outlets in June 2006, Uchumi Supermarkets had to be well stocked to keep shoppers streaming back."
Professional Marketing Services carried out the entire range of marketing and communication campaigns for the supermarket, an unenviable task of keeping Uchumi’s brand visible and favourably perceived in a market where customers and other stakeholders believed it was on its deathbed.
"When the ministry of Trade and Industrialisation was looking for consultants in 2006, few applied but many now desire to work with the chain," she said.
During the early days of receivership, suppliers continued servicing the chain without assurance they would be paid and employees had to take pay cuts.
"Executing Uchumi’s marketing campaigns drained our resources, leading to a dip in our profit," she said.
"When we approached firms for provision of services, they demanded to be paid upfront as they believed the retailer would not be revived."
PMS played the patriotic card on its communication messages to appeal to consumer emotions, which Mwangi said worked well. Among the taglines that were used in the activation of the campaigns was Tujenge Uchumi Yetu.
"We crafted messages that would evoke memories of people in their in 30s and 40s, who grew up knowing Uchumi to be a synonym for a supermarket," she said.
"Our campaigns also motivated staff, who thought the chain would go under."
She said for any retailer to thrive in the country they need to attract female shoppers in their mid 20s to 40s.
"This is the population bracket with young families and they have a large shopping list. They also tend to spend more compared to shoppers in their early 20s," she said.