Coles Group, one of Australia’s most trusted and iconic brands, is steadfast in delivering on its purpose to help Australians eat and live better every day. Through its core business as a full-service supermarket retailer, Coles engages with millions of customers every week in its 860 supermarkets throughout Australia. The group’s other areas of business include its Click & Collect online platform, network of liquor stores, and financial services with nearly 1,000 additional retail outlets.

Guided by the organization’s clear vision, purpose, and strategy, Coles’ team of 120,000 employees is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of customers and the local communities it serves.

In fiscal year 2020/21, Coles Group hired nearly 30,000 people to deliver on its business needs. Mike Virgo, head of Talent Acquisition for Coles Group, said this hiring volume was necessary to make sure the company was “positioned well to support our customers.”

The business environment, however, dramatically shifted as the public health crisis of the pandemic unfolded, resulting in repeated lockdowns and restrictions. As a neighborhood retailer dependent on in-person interaction to deliver most of its services, Coles found its workforce impacted by the pandemic. Faced with supply chain disruptions, panic buying behaviors by consumers, high employee absenteeism, and increased turnover, Coles urgently needed to step up its volume and pace of hiring to support its customers.

“Around 2020-2021, we started to experience one of the most significant shifts in the employment market we’d ever seen,” Virgo said in a session at SuccessConnect Virtual. “It started to create huge challenges for organizations around the world – around how we attract, retain, and hire talent.”

Catalyst for Change and a New Way of Working

To meet pressing business demands, Coles doubled its hiring volume from 30,000 to 60,000 people and increased recruitment advertising spend by a factor of three. Its talent acquisition team grew proportionally to manage the increased workload – but then labored under manual transactional activities that slowed processing times. As a result of the huge strain, variability in the candidate and hiring manager experience became noticeable.

Due to the volume of work, Coles looked for ways to evolve its system to create more speed, efficiency, and scalability. With a list of criteria, Coles began to review technology solutions on the market to find one that could support its vision for a new way of working.

“We wanted to reimagine how we recruit for our stores,” Virgo said. “We needed automation and AI to remove a lot of the manual work in our systems. We wanted to create more consistency and uplift the experiences we were giving our candidates and our hiring managers. And ultimately, [the solution] needed to drive commercial benefit for us.”

As a key requirement, the new solution needed to integrate with SAP SuccessFactors Human Experience Management (HXM) Suite. In 2020, as part of an organization-wide digital transformation that introduced SAP S/4HANA and SAP Ariba solutions, Coles modernized its HR and payroll processing, replacing a patchwork of outdated systems with SAP SuccessFactors solutions. It became the first organization in the southern hemisphere to launch all modules of the SAP SuccessFactors portfolio in one go. With all HR processes unified on a single platform, Coles benefits from having a single source of truth for people data that is accurate and available in real time for the entire organization.

Two-Way Integration Ensures Single Source of Truth in Data

To help with the project, Coles chose Phenom, an SAP partner whose AI-powered Intelligent Talent Experience platform provides two-way integration with SAP SuccessFactors solutions. Virgo said the two-way integration “allows us to have a holistic view of the candidates that progress through the process, no matter whether the team is operating in Phenom or SAP SuccessFactors, and it allows SAP SuccessFactors to be our single source of truth.”

There are several key benefits of Phenom’s solution at Coles. One is candidate attraction and engagement, which is achieved primarily through the Coles career site and chatbot. Another is recruiter automation and interview management, which provides automation and process efficiencies from when a job requisition is created in SAP SuccessFactors solutions and replicated into Phenom until a hiring manager chooses a candidate for the job. Once a candidate is chosen, the two-way integration enables the HR team to access the data in SAP SuccessFactors solutions and complete all compliance aspects, such as working rights, contract generation, and onboarding.

The Coles team gains additional efficiencies in its onboarding programs through the application of robotic process automation (RPA) powered by two bots that work in the background: Ashbotty processes the working rights and Usain Bot processes onboarding and manages pending recruits. “They take a lot of the transactional, manual work that we used to have team members doing. It can do that quickly, accurately, and it can do that 24/7 – which is particularly important for us as a seven-days-a-week business,” Virgo said.

AI-Powered Experiences for Candidates and Recruiters

Coles reimagined the candidate experience to launch a modern, tech-enabled career site – which has been chosen as a two-time winner of Australia’s Best Careers Site. The site includes an AI-powered chatbot to guide candidates as they look for information, search relevant job postings, and submit their applications. It also includes Coles’ Expression of Interest, always-on advertising that drives the growth of its talent pool and advances its talent marketing by reducing the need to advertise every role. A Hosted Apply process, facilitated by integrations with Phenom, presents a consistent candidate experience and increases the conversion rate on applications.

Phenom AI Scheduling, a key part of Coles’ hiring experience, enables candidates to book themselves an available interview slot and automates the coordination of hiring team calendars. The new solution provides a fully mobile-enabled experience to meet the demands of candidates for an omni-channel, real-time experience where they can learn, read, and apply for jobs where and when they want.

Inundated by nearly 1 million applications each year to review, Coles also took steps to elevate the recruiter experience and increase the speed and accuracy of candidate screening and job matching. It implemented Phenom Fit Score, an AI-powered feature that assesses a candidate’s suitability for an open role, based on location and optimal travel distances, availability, and working rights; then, assigns a fit score and surfaces the most closely matched candidates to the recruiters. In addition, the new solution empowers in-store managers to collaborate with recruiters to review candidates and make quick hiring decisions with confidence.

Talent Pools Grow with Improvements to Hiring Speed and Efficiency

With the new augmented solution, Coles is experiencing tangible benefits across multiple categories and key metrics for success: time-to-fill is down six days; time-to-hire is down two days, which is impressive considering candidates can book the in-store interview up to two weeks in advance; and advertising spend is down 50%.

Most notably for Coles as a people-centric organization is the development of its talent pool, now numbering 2 million potential candidates. It achieves an 85% application conversion rate on up to 1 million applications per year. Through its commitment to be a safe, inclusive, and diverse workplace, Coles has applied the new solution to provide greater accessibility for more diverse candidates, resulting in an increase of 24% more hiring for people who identify as having a disability.

Virgo said that the talent acquisition team will continue to evolve its solution and assess more opportunities for AI and automation to bring value to the recruitment process. Although these technologies are not cure-alls for every recruitment scenario, they can save recruiting teams precious time and resources to focus on more high-touch interactions further down the recruiting funnel.

In sharing lessons learned, Virgo noted, “I think the important call out is the level of automation you can inject in your process will likely diminish as the seniority, complexity, and requirements of your roles increase because they are likely to be more high touch, perhaps need more interpretation or judgment calls from your recruiters to identify who the right talent is for your organization.”

Watch SuccessConnect Virtual on demand.