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The independents: Save-On-Foods’ Darrell Jones

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: Gary Sorenson of Georgia Main Food Group, Darrell Jones of Save-On-Foods, Giancarlo Trimarchi of Vince’s Market, Anthony Longo of Longo’s and Sylvie Senay of Avril Supermarché Santé. We will be featuring these Q&As in our newsletter over the coming weeks.

Next in the series is Darrell Jones of Save-On-Foods. Read on for edited excerpts of our interview.

Save-On-Foods is a fixture in Western Canada, with 180 locations and nine more slated to open within the next 18 months. Back in 1976, a young Darrell Jones got an after-school job as a grocery bagger at one of the company’s stores, at the time called Overwaitea, in Cranbrook, B.C., and he rose through the ranks to become president of Save-On-Foods by 2012. We chat with Jones about going the extra mile, what keeps him up at night, and why independents need to focus on what makes them special.

Save-On-Foods was named B.C.’s Most Loved Brand for 2020 (by Ipsos and BC Business). Why does the brand resonate with consumers?
We’re focused on our customers and our communities. Those are the big things. If you’re going to be the “most loved brand,” it’s about more than just selling groceries. It’s about how you interact with your customers in multiple ways. For example, with our e-commerce, we deliver it ourselves with our own vans. We’re not using a separate company to shop the groceries and to deliver them. We think it’s critical that we do it ourselves, because that’s the expectation our customers have, that we’re going to deliver that kind of service. You have to go the extra mile. It’s also about being involved in the community. For British Columbians, the Children’s Hospital is critical, and we’ve been involved in that for 30-plus years. It’s about food banks, it’s getting into schools for the lunch programs—all those kinds of things that really build on having strong social values and being more than just a place to buy groceries.

The other big thing is our focus on local and supporting the local growers . Like, for instance, the lady who has this great horseradish that she makes in Cranbrook, and maybe she doesn't make enough to fulfill the entire company, but she makes enough for areas in their communities—we have what we call local shelving . So we're very, very humbled by what our people of British Columbia did for us with this honour, but we think it's a whole combination of things, and a lot more than just being a grocery retailer.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in the business right now? And how are you addressing those challenges?
Well, clearly the biggest immediate challenge is working our way through what's going on with COVID, and how that's going to change the nature of our business long term. At some point, we're going to get a vaccine for this … and then things will change again and we’ll need to be able to pivot back. Other things we can see on the horizon the shift toward customers wanting to be able to get great meals at the grocery store to take home, with the same quality as they get from restaurants. In order to figure out how to do that well, we're looking at building commissaries so that we can produce the products ourselves. So we think that's going to be really important.

There’s also the continued growth of omnichannel—being able to have customer-specific offerings is going to be a big thing for us—and it’s difficult sometimes for independents to get the technology. We're right now in the process of spending tens of millions of dollars on complete upgrades to our systems. So those are big issues that we're going to face … There are a lot of things ahead, but a big thing for us is to continue to do as much as we can to support local and Canadian. Buy Canadian, take care of the Canadian people first.

What excites you most about the grocery business right now?
Well, I think the thing that excites me most about the grocery business hasn’t changed a lot from three or four years ago. What excites me is the opportunity for us to continue to grow our business by focusing on the customers, what they want and how they want it. Our whole growth plan is around focusing on customers’ wants and needs. I don’t think there’s been a better time for people in the grocery business who truly focus on their customers.

What are the things keeping you up at night?
I really worry about our ability to get the products that we need with the supply chain today. Obviously, the whole COVID issue keeps me up at night. I worry about the safety of our team members and our customers. Right now, that’s really paramount—are we doing enough? Are we doing the right thing every day? Are we taking the right precautions? I worry about small businesses having a tough time. I worry about what the economics of the country are going to look like over the next 12 to 36 months. There’s a lot to be concerned about. But if you stay focused on doing the right things for your customers and really listening carefully to them—I cannot stress that enough—and reacting to them, I think you can get through even these economic downturns, because people always want a place they can go to and trust to get their food. If you focus on the right things, you’ll be OK.

How can independents best tackle the changing retail landscape?
Here’s what I think: the smaller independents, in particular, need to find a way to partner with other companies to lower their cost of goods. Because as the big companies get bigger, the smaller companies can easily get squeezed. As far as I can see, the best way forward is to figure out how to work together and partner more. We’ve done that with Calgary Co-op and we’ve done it with other companies. That’s the way, from our perspective, for smaller companies or even individual stores . Now, the advantage smaller players have is they can do a good job focusing on the customer and community—that’s where independents have the big advantage. If they focus on being unique, don’t chase after the big guys, don’t follow anybody, but do the things that make them special and make them great, they’ll do well. A lot of independents know that, and they’re very good at it. That’s the reason they survive.

Any final thoughts?
The grocery industry is critical to our country, and our team members within our company—and all companies—deserve huge accolades. These people are great. And the vast majority have done it with a smile on their face, wanting to do the right thing. So I guess my final thought is, I just want to congratulate all of the people, not only in the food business, but in all the critical services that have helped us on the front lines through COVID. They truly are our heroes.

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

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