Giant Tiger has come a long way since its first “roar” 60 years ago. The Ottawa-based discount retailer has been steadily growing and evolving since opening its first store in Ottawa in 1961—but the past few years, in particular, have seen exceptionally strong growth. “We’ve been thankful to have the opportunity to grow at a greater pace over the last several years,” says Paul Wood, the chain’s president and CEO. Since 2013, Giant Tiger has expanded its network from around 200 stores to more than 260 locations across Canada today.
Wood took on the president and CEO role in September 2020—taking over from retiring CEO and founder, Gordon Reid—hot on the heels of becoming president and COO one year earlier. But Wood has spent the bulk of his career at Giant Tiger, working his way up from his first role with the company as senior accounting manager in 2003 (the connection goes back even further: prior to 2003, Wood was working for an accounting firm where Giant Tiger was a client).
Wood feels his longevity with the discount retailer—which sells a wide array of goods including clothing, cleaning supplies, grocery, confectionery, pet food, housewares, toys and health and beauty products—has definitely helped his performance as CEO. “Ultimately, it’s really a connection to the values of the company that we can now rely on as we transition and transform some of the ways we operate as the world has shifted around us,” he says.
The grocery department is one area undergoing some transformations, including a new focus on fresh: Giant Tiger debuted its fresh meat offering just a couple of years ago, and has significantly expanded its fresh produce selection recently. “On the grocery side, really, what we’ve focused on over the last few years has been rounding out our assortment of grocery, [being very] customer focused,” says Wood. “We know our size dictates that we can’t be all things to everyone; we can’t carry the full assortment of a full grocer. But we can carry a complete assortment for our customers’ everyday needs, so you should be able to get some of everything you want.”
Beyond an increased focus on fresh meat and produce, Giant Tiger continually tests out new grocery items to reflect consumer trends, including “organics, plant-based, the ready-to-heat meals and those kinds of elements—as they grow in popularity and demand, our assortment has to adjust and keep pace,” says Wood. “Our merchants are constantly working on that with input from our customers, and we pride ourselves on offering a great selection of national brands within our assortment that you would find anywhere.”
That said, selection does have to be carefully curated to reflect space limitations; as Wood notes, grocery is a key component of the business, but it’s not the only component. “So instead of having three or four national brands, we might have one on the shelf. And instead of having 10 flavours of something, we might have three or four,” explains Wood. “But there is a strong focus on the customer helping to drive what that selection ends up being.”
The grocery department has also meant Giant Tiger is an essential retailer, so it’s stayed open during every phase of the pandemic. “The role of being essential is something we don’t take for granted,” says Wood. “The importance of groceries, the trend of everybody being at home more and eating at home more than before, bore out in how grocery was playing a significant role for us during that time frame; and being in-stock for our customers and serving our communities in that way is a real focus for us as we go ahead.”
And since many Canadians have been experiencing budget constraints during the pandemic, the discount sector, in general, has also had a boost from value-seeking consumers attracted to the “every-day low prices’’ of a chain like Giant Tiger. But it’s no secret that even prior to the pandemic, discount was one of the faster-growing retail sectors in recent years. “The expansion in discount really has created more competition for us; [it] forces us to be even sharper than we would’ve been before—but it’s also just an example of where some of the innovations have been in retail,” says Wood. “I think we’ve seen, as retail has developed here in Canada in the last little while, there’s been a lack of innovation in the ‘middle of the road,’ if you will, while discount and the upper and specialty tiers have been growing.”
Wood says Giant Tiger is rising to the challenge of heightened competition. “For us, it just emphasizes our need to continue to expand and integrate our offering into a digital world, and to incorporate some innovation into our stores and into the customer experience to ensure that they’re getting an easy, affordable, and simple but memorable experience.”
While the CEO admits Giant Tiger hasn’t historically been known for being on the cutting edge of innovation, the retailer has been upping its game in that area. The company opened a new high-tech, state-of-the-art distribution centre in Johnstown, Ont. in 2018. The 600,000-sq.-ft. facility features autonomous robots that can move up, down and across racks of inventory at speeds up to 40 km/hour. “We’ve got a significant amount of robotics there to support our distribution efforts to our stores to keep things moving as efficiently as possible, and to keep the stores—which have limited stockroom capacity—as in-stock as possible, with as frequent and complete deliveries as we can,” explains Wood.
And just this spring, the company opened a new flagship store on Walkley Road in Ottawa that was specifically designed with customer experience in mind. Features of this new prototype include “enticing” exterior window treatments that allow customers to get a better glimpse of the kinds of deals they can expect inside; new in-store wayfinding signage to make shopping easier; improved lighting features; a new branded online order pickup area to ease the pickup process; and improved customer messaging about both in-store and online offerings. This new flagship store will also serve as a “test environment” for any new customer-focused initiatives before they’re rolled out nationwide.
As Giant Tiger prepares to mark its 60th anniversary this year, Wood says he is proud of where the brand has been and where it’s headed. “We’re really excited about passing that milestone, and we wouldn’t be there if we weren’t continuing to listen and respond to our customers and provide them with great experiences and great products at outstanding value every day,” he says. “We don’t take our role in our customers’ lives for granted. We like to stay engaged with them and with our communities, and we’re looking forward to lots of continued opportunities to do so for many years to come.”