Jamie Nelson, CFIG’s incoming chair, on championing independents

Canadian Grocer catches up with Nelson to talk about the current grocery landscape and what it will take for indies to win
Jamie Nelson
Jamie Nelson. Photography by Adam Blasberg

As a high school student in Mission, B.C. back in 1979, Jamie Nelson was looking for part-time work. It wasn’t long before he found it, landing a gig at the Overwaitea Foods (now Save-On-Foods) that had just opened in town. What Nelson didn’t know then was that his part-time job was the start of a 40-plus year career in grocery that has taken him from the frontlines to the c-suite and has even earned him a prestigious Golden Pencil Award (more on that in Canadian Grocer’s November 2023 issue)

“Sometimes I do wonder how I got to this level,” says Nelson, modestly, attributing his career trajectory to making the most of every opportunity that has come his way. “I really wanted to be a store manager and that happened for me and then I just kept going from there. I’ve been very fortunate.”

Today, Nelson is chief operating officer of Langley, B.C.-based Pattison Food Group and executive vice-president of Save-On-Foods. A force in Western Canada, Pattison Food Group has 11 retail banners under its umbrella including Buy-Low Foods, Quality Foods, Nesters Market and Save- On-Foods. The company has been adding to its store count in recent years, even venturing outside of Canada with its acquisition of Oregon-based Roth’s Fresh Markets in 2021.

Come October, Nelson will take on a new challenge as he steps into the role of chair of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers (CFIG), succeeding fellow Pattison Food Group and Buy-Low Foods exec Dan Bregg. In an interview with Canadian Grocer, Nelson talks about what’s ahead for Pattison Food Group/Save-On-Foods, the need to be transparent with customers and the big issues facing independent grocers today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve held a lot of different roles at Save-On-Foods over the years. What are some of your biggest learnings from those experiences? 

Regardless of the role, the fundamentals are the same. Lead by example, listen to people [both team members and customers], treat them with respect, set high expectations and hold everyone, including myself, accountable.

What has been a notable change you’ve witnessed in the grocery industry during your time working in it? 

It has really been about competition. In my time, I have seen Real Canadian Superstore, Walmart and Costco all move into our markets. Competition has driven us to be more efficient in everything we do to satisfy the consumer’s needs. Save-On-Foods/Pattison Food Group continues to grow with new stores and initiatives. 

READ: PHOTO GALLERY: Inside Save-On-Foods' Prince George, B.C. store

What’s next? 

We are always looking for opportunities to expand to new locations across Western Canada. Renovating current stores is also a priority, as is introducing some of our successful innovations company-wide. Regarding our independent grocers, we are committed to ensuring they have all the tools they need to be successful, and that we support them to reach their goals as unique banners.

How would you sum up the last few years for independent grocers? 

The pandemic years have been difficult for everyone, especially independent grocers whose size limited them when they lost part of their workforce due to illness. But consumers know their independents well and, throughout the pandemic, customers felt comfortable shopping in smaller establishments where they know the staff and could see the efforts being made to keep people safe. 

When you speak with independents (in your capacity as a CFIG board member), what are some of their biggest concerns right now? 

We are in a time of transition. Changes in the workforce are a concern right now, especially for independents. Things like turnover and the labour shortage continue to be of concern and owners are retiring, looking to sell their businesses. And, like all retailers, independents are concerned with inflation and rising costs to run their businesses.

You mention owners retiring – how big of a concern is succession? 

I think it’s a big concern and we continue to take calls from different independents. Now, some have done a really good job of succession planning; they’ve been building their teams and working with family [members] to continue the business, but there are a lot of single-store operators out there who are wondering what the future holds for them.

READ: Proposed changes to Canada's Competition Act good news for independent grocers, organizations say

Would you say it’s a good time to be an independent grocer? 

What do independents need to do to thrive in the current marketplace? The Canadian grocery landscape needs a mix of large, national, regional, local and independent retailers to thrive – there will always be a place for the independent. Consumers across the country are looking for what they need closer to home and from people they can trust. Independent grocers need to be community-minded to thrive; supporting local and really knowing their customer is what’s going to help them deliver. They need to focus on what they do really well and be the best at those things. The advantage of independents is they can make decisions, pivot and innovate quickly relative to larger players. 

What do you hope to accomplish in your year-long term as chair of CFIG? 

The team at CFIG does a fantastic job at standing up for the independents and supporting them with everything from training to government relations. I see my role as a support role to help the team communicate their vision and ensure, as an organization, we are listening and prioritizing our resources where the needs are greatest. 

Achieving a grocery code of conduct has been a years-long effort and priority for CFIG. Where do things stand with the code right now? Are things progressing as hoped? 

I am confident that an industry-wide code of conduct will come together by the end of the year. I fully believe that all industry participants including manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and retailers will be pleased with the outcome, and will benefit from participating. 

READ: Grocery code of conduct nears the finish line

Surveys show grocers’ reputations have taken a bit of a hit due to inflation/higher prices. What can grocers do to win favour with customers again? 

Grocers need to be transparent with their customers and suppliers and business partners. Focus on relationships with local growers and producers and showcase quality and value.

What opportunities lie ahead for independents? 

Independents have huge opportunities to be nimble, flexible and offer consumers new, innovative services and products before national retailers. Fostering relationships with their communities is key to their success. Criticism from the public tends to focus on large, national retailers, giving independents an opportunity to earn public favour and become the store of choice in their communities.

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s September/October 2023 issue.

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