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The independents: Avril Supermarché Santé's Sylvie Senay

In a new Q&A series, we talk to indie leaders about resilience, evolving consumers and standing out from the crowd

Independent grocers might not have all of the advantages of the national giants, but through their connection to community, relationships with customers, and staying focused on what makes them special, they compete with the big chains on their own terms.

Canadian Grocer recently caught up with five indie grocers from across the country: Darrell Jones of Save-On-Foods, Gary Sorenson of Georgia Main Food Group, Giancarlo Trimarchi of Vince’s Market, Anthony Longo of Longo’s and Sylvie Senay of Avril Supermarché Santé.

The last Q&A in our series is with Sylvie Senay of Avril Supermarché Santé. Read on for an edited excerpt of our interview.

In 1994, Sylvie Senay and Rolland Tanguay launched Avril Supermarché Santé, an organic and natural foods store in Granby, Que. With organic fare exploding in popularity, Avril has expanded to eight stores in the province. A ninth, just south of Montreal, is planned for next year. Avril co-founder and co-owner Senay spoke to Canadian Grocer about COVID challenges, the company’s expansion, and the growing enthusiasm for natural organic foods.

What’s the biggest challenge operating a grocery business right now?
It’s the COVID crisis, undoubtedly. We have had to make adjustments on a daily basis. Government regulations changed continuously, almost every day. We had to make our stores safe for shopping: install Plexiglass, disinfect shopping carts, terminals and counters, provide hand sanitizer, etc. Given the fear that was instilled in the population and among our staff, it required constant management. Many employees did not want to or could not come to work, either out of fear or because their children weren’t going to school and daycare wasn’t available. With the closing of our restaurant-bistros, we were able to relocate employees to make up for the lack of staff. We developed phone orders for in-store pickup and a delivery service. Our online orders have exploded.

How do you account for Avril’s success over the years?
Twenty five years ago, there were few natural product stores and they were very marginal. We started very small by buying a 1,000-sq.-ft. store. As we were already consumers of natural foods, the field excited us. Over time, we saw growing enthusiasm for natural organic foods. The demand was there. So, we decided in 2007 to launch our expansion plan. We created a hybrid concept that is a cross between traditional grocery, fine grocery and a pharmacy. Given that my husband and I were already informed consumers, we created a store concept that we loved and clients responded in kind.

What is the “essence” of your business?
Our employees are at the heart of Avril and customer satisfaction is our priority. Our stores are designed and thought out to showcase natural products— they’re the star products in our stores. Organic products often come from small companies whose owners have put their hearts and souls into producing them. We wanted to create an environment that would highlight them.

How do you keep up with changing consumer demands?
As we’re in the heart of the action every day, we’re very much in tune with our clients. We always try to be on trend. We follow what’s happening elsewhere in the world to always keep a step ahead.

How have you had to pivot your business this year?
We’ve accelerated our IT development. What was originally planned for the coming years, we did in a few months. For example, before COVID, two to three people worked on online orders. During COVID, up to 40 people have filled orders and worked on improving processes. We’re also seeing a strong trend toward in-store phone orders. We are developing a click-and-collect service to meet this growing need. Two years ago, we opened our distribution and logistics centre to support our expansion. Luckily, our distribution centre allowed us to supply stores during the COVID period.

How are you preparing for a potential second wave of COVID-19?
Everything is in place. Our information systems have been strengthened and we continue to develop new procedures. We’ve redone our website as well as our transactional site, which will be launched this fall. To respond to the growing demand, we’ve reviewed our assembly line for online orders.

What keeps you up at night?
This is the fourth recession we’ve gone through. Our experience allows us to confront any challenge. Nothing really prevents us from sleeping, unless it’s answers to problems that come to us during the night and ideas swirling endlessly in our heads.

What’s the status of your new CF Promenades St-Bruno store (near Montreal)?
We will open our ninth store in the mall’s Marché des Promenades at the beginning of May 2021. It will be based on the model of our Laval outlet. We are also working on an urban concept that will see the light of day in 2021.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer‘s September-October 2020 issue.

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