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Empire CEO says innovation is the future

With Project Sunrise near completion, the company has set its sights on evolving the online and offline shopping experience
(CNW Group/Empire Company Limited)

When it comes to innovation, Empire isn't chasing headlines, according to its president and CEO Michael Medline, it's chasing efficiencies, sales growth and customer satisfaction.

With Project Sunrise--a multi-year, $500-million cost-cutting plan launched in 2017--coming to a close, Empire is in a position to focus more of its resources on innovation. And the company will do so, but in ways that are both strategic and prudent, said Medline.

"Throwing money around willy-nilly and doing innovation for innovation's sake is not the strategy we want to pursue," he said, during the company's quarterly conference call with analysts and media last week. The goal, said Medline, is to become the "most innovative retailer in Canada."

Change won't happen over night, he said, or even in the next year. "We will do it in the right way as we have benchmarked," he said. But what has changed and evolved over the last six months is the way in which the company is approaching artificial intelligence, data and analytics.

Sandra Sanderson, who joined the company as senior vice-president of marketing late last year, is driving more personalized marketing "and better use in digital," said Medline. "You're going to see us testing early on in the fiscal year, some things online that if they work will spread across our business."

Though Medline shared few details of the company's plan ("At this time we're keeping these projects close to the vest for obvious competitive reasons"), he did say the company would be hiring a head of innovation soon. "I am very very optimistic about the type of person we are bringing into that role and even more excited about the team we have here to lead innovation," he said.

As Empire increases its focus on innovation, it's also gearing up to launch its home delivery service Voilà by Sobeys next year. Powered by British company Ocado Group, the service will offer up to 39,000 products including fresh produce.

As important as digital and the e-commerce experience has become across all businesses and industries, the physical retail experience is still equally as important and rife with opportunity, though it has remained  relatively unchanged over the years.

"Shopping in the grocery store looks pretty well the same as it did 50 years ago when my mother was pushing me around in a cart and that needs to change," said Medline. "We're putting in place the teams, tools and culture that we need to drive innovation on our business and to win the next generation of grocery retailing."


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