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Marc Poulin on building up Sobeys' grocery empire

Sobeys' CEO on a new store design, what's next for Safeway and working with Jamie Oliver

Marc Poulin, CEO of Sobeys and its parent company, Empire, has just flown in to Toronto from out west, having met with his new Safeway employees. To say it’s been a busy time for Canada’s No. 2 grocery retailer would be an understatement.

Following the closing of the company’s big Safeway acquisition this past fall, Poulin has led the company’s brand repositioning and opened two new-look stores, including one in Winnipeg and a Sobeys Extra, in Burlington, Ont.

READ: Sobeys unveils its latest store with food discovery and more

In December, Poulin also unveiled a new convenience format, called IGA Express, in Quebec City.

In the midst of his hectic schedule, Poulin sat down with Canadian Grocer to talk about the company’s new food mission, Safeway and how Sobeys is building its grocery empire. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Sobeys’ acquisition of Canada Safeway was a blockbuster deal. What were the reasons for the purchase?

We saw Canada Safeway’s business–its people, current strategy and assets–as something that was very much in line with Sobeys’ strategy of bringing better food to Canadians.

We’re going to build on the best from both teams, and we’re about to embark on something that is big, not only for the company, but that will bring something to the marketplace to the Canadian public.

From a geographic footprint, Safeway complements our existing footprint quite well. With the acquisition, Sobeys will become a leading, if not the leading, grocer in Western Canada. Safeway also has very urban real estate, which we didn’t.

That in itself creates opportunities in the service stores we could put forward to Canadians. More importantly, it’s the culture and the people at Safeway that will make a big difference in helping us to change the way Canadians think about food.

How long will the integration of Safeway take?

Our first priority is systems. We have 18 months to do the systems transition, from SAP–the heart of our systems base–to in-store POS. After that, we’ve told Street we believe it will take three years to do the full integration.

Some things will go faster, such as private label, while others, such as distribution, will take longer because we have to deal with assets. So you won’t see any changes to the brand in stores, or commercial programs. For the short term, Safeway remains Safeway.

How did the new brand positioning–Sobeys better food for all–come about?

When we looked at the Canadian marketplace and the trends for the future, we realized there were unmet needs when it came to Canadians and their relationship with food.

Yes, there are consumers looking for price or convenience alone. But there’s also a sizeable segment of the population looking for a better food experience.

READ: Sobeys unveils its new brand positioning with Jamie Oliver

And we want to be there for Canadians, to allow them to eat better, do better, feel better. We want to be the champions of the affordable, better-food movement. This means bringing Canadians back to cooking their own meals.

We want a healthier food experience for Canadians that is driven by freshness, and by bringing back emotion to food. To this end, we’re making significant efforts on how food is sourced. That’s our definition of “better” food.

What came first, the new brand positioning or your partnership deal with U.K. chef Jamie Oliver?

It was the vision that came first; the Jamie Oliver partnership came after. We already had some Jamie Oliver products in our stores, and as part of our normal business review, we shared with Jamie’s team where we wanted to be as a company. Both parties got really excited about joining forces to make that happen.

We didn’t want to partner with just any chef. And Jamie isn’t just a chef, he’s a food advocate. We share the same vision for what food should represent in the future. He’s just a part of Sobeys’ bigger goal to provide Canadians with better affordable food.

What do you mean by “affordable” food?

We believe that there is a sizeable segment of consumers who are looking for more than just the price on the flyer out of their food-shopping experience. delivers a value proposition that will hopefully make Canadians happier. We understand modern life is hectic, but there is a better way, and we want to be a part of that.

For example, we’re looking to bring more prepared foods to consumers, because they tell us they don’t have time to cook. We can do a lot of that prep work for them. Through merchandising, we can suggest easy, fast and healthy solutions for them as well. For Sobeys, it’s not just about selling food. It’s about how we as a grocer can lead with solutions.

What are some of the customer-facing changes aligned with your mission?

At the newly renovated Sage Creek store in Winnipeg, an effort has been made to put staff front and centre so there’s more interaction with the customer.

Traditionally, grocers have put staff on the perimeter. At this store, there’s more opportunity to discover food because of the boutique environment, where people can linger and uncover more of what we have to offer.

VIEW: Step inside Sobeys Extra's food emporium

There’s also more emphasis on fresh in this store than we’ve done in the past. We’re getting closer to 50-50 space allocation for fresh and grocery. Even in the grocery side of things, there’s more emphasis on categories such as yogurt, along with more natural-sourced products.

We’re also the first in Canada to offer Certified Humane products as well as other programs that are linked to our mission. For example, the new Jamie Oliver flattened chicken is a better food product. You just put it in the oven and it’s done–it’s faster than ordering from a restaurant. But this will require lots of commitment on our part because we have to spend the money and effort to introduce it properly to consumers. It’s clear we’ll shrink initially before consumers pick it up because there’s more sampling and explanation involved.

What are the key challenges facing the grocery business as a whole?

As an industry, if we don’t start bringing better value to Canadians in terms of a different food experience, we won’t get rewarded with their dollars. Today, there is intense competition for the food dollar coming from everywhere. And as grocers we need to remain relevant.

The other challenge for food retailers is to deliver on value. To this end, we’ll see more food-and-fuel cross promotions, as it makes sense: Do your grocery shop and put gas in your tank. It’s a routine for customers that also brings value for them.

READ: First IGA Express c-store opens in Quebec

We’re also rethinking the convenience store for the future, with our IGA Express format that launched, in Quebec City, recently. It’s a cross between a supermarket, a convenience store and a fast-food restaurant and is designed to help Quebecers eat better on the run. So going forward, we’re going to experiment with things on the convenience channel as well.

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