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How to boost digital transformation in food retailing

Interview with Marco De Sanctis, Managing Director and Co-founder of Desa Srl

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Desa operates the Dem and Iperdem supermarket chain comprising 14 stores in Rome and the region of Lazio, which is situated in central Italy and which, after Lombardy, is the second most populated region in the country. This makes it the number one food retailer in the Italian capital.

The company was founded in 2007 by the Italian De Sanctis family, which has been involved in food distribution since the 1980s. “Before we set up Dem and Iperdem 13 years ago, we had been operating another retail brand that we sold to a large supermarket chain,” explains Marco De Sanctis, Managing Director and co-founder of the new retailing business. “With Dem and Iperdem, we established a new brand and chain of stores, which has been developing very well since then.”

Based in Ciampino, a city in the Metropolitan City of Rome, Desa is convinced that it is the details that make the difference. “Everything we do is aimed at the complete satisfaction of our customers,” Mr. De Sanctis describes the company’s mission. “First of all, it is the quality of our products that makes us stand apart. Every product we offer, both food and non-food, is carefully selected to meet the most diverse needs of our customers.”

In addition, the Dem and Iperdem supermarkets provide a comfortable environment that makes shopping a pleasure for its customers. All employees are selected and trained to guarantee a high level of service, while all prices are displayed clearly and legibly and are highly competitive. “Whoever enters one of our 14 supermarkets should feel like a member of the family, in a pleasant, orderly space that is tailored to his needs and designed to make shopping a unique experience, every day,” Mr. De Sanctis sums up the philosophy of the Italian supermarket chain.

It is the quality of our products that makes us stand apart. Marco De SanctisManaging Director and Co-founder

In fact, customers don’t have the impression they are enter ing a conventional supermarket when visiting a Dem or Iperdem store. The company’s supermarkets are more like ‘temples of consumption’, architecturally attractive shopping malls that invite consumers to have a good time while getting their groceries. This, combined with excellent value for money and courteous, helpful staff, forms the basis for the company’s sustained success in the retailing business.

“We are like a large family and attach great importance to good relations with each other,” says Mr. De Sanctis. “Our employees are the driving force behind our success. This is why we nurture a good working atmosphere where everyone can feel at home.”

To attract motivated and qualified personnel to share in its family ethos, Desa is committed to continuous training and individualized support. “We have our own training academy for both school leavers and university graduates,” states Mr. De Sanctis. “The academy provides various courses that include both theoretical and practical inputs.”

Desa is part of the DSG Holding Company, which is based in Ciampino, too, and a member of a major distribution consortium in Rome which allows the company to offer very competitive prices. “At present, we have 14 points of sale, including nine Dem and five Iperdem markets,” states Mr. De Sanctis. “Every year, we add at least another store. Last year, we opened three new supermarkets, and this year, we are adding another three, too. So at the end of the year, we will have 17 points of sale in the region.”

Desa started by opening supermarkets in Rome and the surrounding area, and later expanded into the whole Lazio region. “Our strategy is to continue along this path,” says Mr. De Sanctis. “Initially, we want to open further stores in Lazio to establish a regional network, and later expand beyond the region.”

Desa has been developing so successfully that a large food retailing business wanted to acquire the supermarket chain. “But we rejected the offer, which probably was the best decision we ever made,” explains Mr. De Sanctis. “We are committed to developing the chain ourselves and targeting continuous improvement. The latest new store we opened is situated in Santa Marinella, about 60 km northwest of Rome, in a very attractive location. But the best is still to come, we say. There is always something that can be improved, that we can make better the next time. We have strong ambitions, and it is this feeling of being able to move forward and develop things that provides the basis for my motivation.”

During the acute phase of the Corona pandemic in the spring, Desa suffered only from a temporary loss in business. “Due to the general lockdown, we had fewer people going shopping in the month of April,” explains Mr. De Sanctis. “But as an alternative, we introduced a delivery service, which was very well accepted. And in the following months, we were able to make up for the decrease in April, despite the fact that we had increasing costs as a result of new staff we had to hire for the delivery service and the comprehensive hygiene measures we had to implement in our supermarkets.”

Besides developing the newly launched delivery service, Desa is investing in advanced digital solutions. “On the one hand, we are continuing to automate our 45,000 m2 warehousing facility,” states Mr. De Sanctis. “On the other, we are growing our presence on social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram. We have over 100,000 regular social-media contacts and communicate with our customers through various social networks.”

In addition, Desa is developing its e-commerce activities. “We are currently devising a business plan with a consultancy and hope to have our own e-commerce channel in operation by 2021,” Mr. De Sanctis describes the evolving distribution strategy. “It would have been good to already have our own online shop during the lockdown but we improvised and took orders for our delivery service by phone or e-mail.”

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