Ocado Group offers investors a unique choice

Ocado Group's investors can now swap a printed annual report for a digital one, and see the savings reinvested in child literacy


Investors at Ocado Group now need to opt in to receive a physical annual report after the company asked them last year whether they would prefer a digital version, allowing the cost savings to be reinvested into Chapter One, a child literacy programme formerly known as Tutor Mate, which the online retailer and technology business supports.

The programme offers children free access to an online library of modern, cultural stories, and Ocado decided to link its annual report initiative with a creative writing competition for colleagues, with a focus on stories about robots for children aged between five and seven. The ten winning entries would be illustrated professionally, and included in Chapter One’s online curriculum.

The initiative, which has been dubbed as ‘trading a book for a book’, was the brainchild of corporate reporting manager Manisha Pankhania, who wanted to understand the value that investors placed on an actual copy of the annual report against a digital version.

Did they read it from cover-to-cover, or did they perhaps read five or so pages at the front before concentrating on the financials? Or, more importantly, did they retain the report? Did it simply end up in the recycling bin?

With a background in creative design, Pankhania understood print and its associated costs. She could also see that changing governance and new legislation meant Ocado’s annual report was getting longer as it strove to contain all the requisite information to comply with its obligations.

She adds: ‘I know this is something that all companies are challenged with; telling a great story versus getting the regulatory pieces in and keeping the reader engaged – oh, and keeping the word count down.

‘The initiative was never a cost-cutting exercise. It was about being smarter, understanding our audience – while being resourceful and responsible.’

While there is a legal requirement to provide a printed annual report for those investors who demand a copy, Ocado was also aware that the way people consume information is changing.

But Pankhania needed data before any decisions could be made, so Ocado’s company secretariat wrote to its shareholders to seek their input on the proposal. ‘I thought it would be an amazing story. To take one book, that might not really be valuable to one person, and to transform it into a different type of book that might save a child’s life,’ she explains.

‘When we sent out the comms to the shareholders, we did explain our plan and how we wanted to reinvest the money. We said that if a hard copy isn’t for you, then you can still be part of this other journey we are going on. The money will go where it is needed, and help children.’

The response from investors was positive, with many choosing to opt out of receiving a hard copy. Ocado ultimately made the decision that only those investors who physically opted in would continue to receive a hard copy, while the rest would be sent the digital version. New shareholders get offered the option.

Pankhania believes that, ultimately, those who receive the digital version or seek it out on the investor relations section of Ocado’s website, may have a more fulfilling experience.

‘If you read the annual report PDF on the website and think Actually, I want to read a bit more about what Ocado is doing here, then it is an easy journey to come out of the PDF and to visit [the relevant section] on the website, because you can access further content easily within the site,’ she says. ‘With a physical book, you pick it up, read the page, close the book and put it down.’

Ocado has also tried to make its physical annual report more interactive, by including more links with QR codes that take readers through to the relevant pages on its website.

While Ocado has yet to do so with its PDF, it has conducted heat mapping on its website to see exactly where investors, analysts and other users visit and what interests them. ‘We can see where users are clicking. You won’t get that data from a printed book,’ she explains. ‘We’re not sharing the data, but it allows us to understand what people want to read and to focus on that, adding more of that content to our website.’ Ocado can also see how many people have downloaded the report.

‘A printed annual report is nice because you can see a spread together and the natural flow through it, whereas it is a different experience with a PDF,’ she adds. ‘But I think the way people take in information has changed. People don’t have that much time. They want snippets of information.’

Pankhania believes that Ocado is likely the first organisation to launch such an initiative. ‘I think there’s a story about sustainability here, but also a story about not doing things like we’ve always done them. I was able to take a step back because I came from a different field. I was looking at the annual report with fresh eyes, and was asking why we are doing it like this?’ she says. ‘Anybody that’s been in the field for a long time often do things in a very set way because it’s always been done that way.’

I think the way people take in information has changed. People don’t have that much time. They want snippets of information.

Ocado Group has long enjoyed a partnership with Chapter One, which aligns with one of its three pillars of corporate responsibility – skills for the future, where there is a focus on improving basic life skills, such as reading, for those from a disadvantaged background. Many of its employees have volunteered to spend time each week or fortnight reading remotely with children in the UK.

‘We launched a competition giving our colleagues a chance to write a book and have it illustrated. We worked out that each book cost around £1,000. We took the money saved from not printing annual reports, transferred it to Chapter One and said we would pick ten stories to get illustrated and turned into digital books,’ Pankhania explains.

Her own submission, which won one of the ten coveted places, focused on a robot family that work in a customer fulfilment centre (CFC). There’s Priya, who picks the food, but prefers fruit and vegetables. Brother Bobby who packs the food. The mother who directs the robots, flashing green and red lights to control them, and the dad, who is an engineer and fixes all the broken robots.

‘Kids have an imagination, and if I took a child to a CFC and showed them the robots, they’d be amazed at how they move around. But, beyond that, there’s not much of a story for a child,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to play on their imagination, to share what we do in the CFC and how the technology works. It’s about that initial step from seeing the book, and then being inquisitive and wanting to find out more.’

Other stories focused on using robots to clean beaches, a robot butler and a tale of a young girl showing her sceptical grandfather how technology impacted every aspect of his life, from the pedestrian crossing to the electric kettle heating water for his tea. ‘I’ve signed up as a volunteer because it is nice to have that interaction and to spend some time helping a child to read, supporting them,’ adds Pankhania. ‘But also, being present, and reading your book with a child and feeling incredibly proud. It’s a rare opportunity, I think.’

It’s about that initial step from seeing the book, and then being inquisitive and wanting to find out more

But the story doesn’t stop there. Ocado Group will likely contact its investors over the next three years to check that they are happy with the digital option. ‘We may then do something different,’ she adds. ‘It doesn’t need to be a book. It could be that the money saved goes to replanting trees or something else. It’s just that this is what we did this time around. But there are many ways [we can use this saved money] to make a difference.’