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Operating a grocery store in the COVID-19 era: A Q&A with Save-On-Foods' Darrell Jones

In this ongoing Q&A series, Canadian Grocer checks in with grocery store operators from across the country

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the grocery industry, and Canada’s food retailers have been forced to adapt quickly to keep staff and shoppers safe.

In an ongoing Q&A series, Canadian Grocer is checking in with grocery store operators from across the country to find out how they’re doing, how their job has changed over the last couple months, and what long-term impact COVID-19 will have on their business.

Here, we catch up with Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones.

Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones.

What shifts in consumer behaviour have you observed over the last month?

Over the last month, we’ve experienced a more normalized level of business. Customers aren’t panic-buying as much, although there are still shortages on things like hand sanitizer and household cleaners.

With the initial panic subsiding, people are returning to more usual shopping patterns but we have certainly seen some shifts--customers are making less trips per week, purchasing more staples to bake and cook meals at home, and they are being more intentional in their purchase decisions. They also really seem to appreciate our unique e-commerce offering, not only because they know the people who are picking and delivering their orders, but also because it’s a great tool to help plan their shop.

Although there is some fatigue with staying home and anxiety about the unknown, our team members and customers are working together on this “new normal.” We have always said that the food business is really a relationship business, and this statement has never been truer than right now.

How will COVID-19 change the way you merchandise your store? How will it impact your product assortment?

By necessity, we are seeing the return of production and manufacturing of food and consumer goods to our country and we welcome this change. As Canada’s largest Western-based grocery retailer, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have an already strong network of trusted local and national partnerships. We believe that now is the time to put all of our collective weight and effort into supporting businesses that do business in Canada, and we look forward to working with our partners to advance this effort.

We also believe mix assortment is going to change. Because of demands on manufacturing, there has been some natural elimination of product duplication in many categories. We think this will be a very interesting shift, as it will enable true product innovation to surface, which will be very well received by the consumer.

COVID-19 has accelerated online grocery shopping. What does this mean for your business?

We launched our e-commerce solution with its unique click and collect and home delivery combination six years ago and, before COVID-19, we had this offering available in every major centre we do business.

With a surge in e-commerce demand when this all started, we amplified our customer service and made some critical changes quickly to adapt our already strong service. Because our entire e-commerce operation is in-house, we were able to quickly hire additional team members, put more delivery vans on the road, and ensure that we had the highest standards of sanitization and safety protocols in place to protect our team members and customers.

Prior to COVID-19, we saw consumers turning to grocery stores more than ever to fulfill their health and wellness needs. Will the pandemic change or increase your focus on health and wellness?

There is no doubt that people are paying more attention than ever to the notion that “food is medicine.” With our focus on the health and wellness of children and families as part of our mandate for the past 30 years, we continue to look for ways to enhance our food and health solution offerings in-store, and share relevant content with our customers online.

Our pharmacy professionals have always been an integral part of Save-On-Foods, and our health and wellness offering adds value that’s important to our customers. Since the onset of this pandemic, Canadians have been looking to pharmacy teams more than ever to answer their questions and help ease some of their anxiety. With health and wellness top of mind for Canadian consumers, we’re partnering with a telemedicine service in some of our B.C. stores in the coming weeks that will integrate with our pharmacies for a health and wellness experience you simply can’t get in other conventional grocery stores.

What has been the biggest challenge in terms of staffing and employee management? How do you keep staff in good spirits?

With our team members working around the clock to keep shelves full and provide outstanding customer service, our biggest challenge is managing team member fatigue. We strongly encourage team members to get the rest they need to recharge and balance their work life with their responsibilities to their families and in their personal lives.

The vast majority of our customers recognize that our team members are leaving their own homes to help their neighbours get the food and medicines they need, and they are sharing their gratitude in creative and thoughtful ways. From flowers to handwritten letters to even a custom painting, these displays of gratitude are so appreciated by our team members and lift their spirits when they need it most.

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