Sobeys’ Sarah Joyce on launching e-comm during COVID

In a virtual talk with RCC, Joyce discussed how every element of the rollout of Voilà had to change

In early 2020, Sobeys had already been planning the spring launch of its online grocery delivery service, Voilà by Sobeys, for two years. The service is powered by British company Ocado’s cutting-edge technology, which fulfills orders from robotic fulfillment centres.

“I joke that we planned for two years and then we changed every element of the plan in the final weeks leading up to the launch,” said Sobeys’ SVP of e-commerce, Sarah Joyce, at the Retail Council of Canada’s online interview series, In Conversation with Retail Leaders. She was interviewed by RCC president Diane Brisebois.

“We had been preparing for our launch for two years because it takes two years to build these large-scale automated warehouses,” said Joyce. “And all of a sudden with COVID-19, we saw huge increases in the demand for online grocery in Canada and around the world... Basically overnight, we had the opportunity to become an essential service for Canadians, right when they needed it most.”

To meet the accelerated demand ahead of its June launch in the Greater Toronto Area, Sobeys hired more drivers to get more trucks on the road, doubling its fleet size. The retailer worked with suppliers to revise its assortment, focusing on essential products that were reliably in stock.

Like other retailers, Sobeys changed all its safety protocols with increased cleaning and sanitation, as well as physical distancing in the warehouse. It also implemented contactless deliveries. Prior to COVID, Sobeys was planning to bring customers’ groceries right into their kitchens. “All of a sudden, our white-glove delivery was being completely re-envisioned,” said Joyce.

The marketing plan was overhauled, too: gone were the out-of-home billboards, events and street teams and in were digital channels, as everyone was under a stay-at-home order.

Joyce said the time leading up to the launch was both challenging and rewarding, adding that the company operated with both agility and empathy. “We were moving so fast, but everything we were doing was rooted in this mission that we were helping every single Canadian who was just trying to find a safe way to get food for their families.”

The response to Voilà has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Joyce. Since the launch, the service has been 98% on time and 99% accurate so far. “Customers notice the difference. It truly is a different service and a different offering.”

While e-commerce is the fastest-growing segment of retail, Joyce said that doesn’t mean people are going to stop shopping at full-service grocery stores. In fact, she believes the majority of sales are going to be in store for a very long time.

“This is about choice for the customer and being there for them however they decide to shop... You need to be there for them for both. It’s not an either/or,” she said.

“We know that customers who shop both channels are two times more loyal and spend 1.5 times more overall. It isn’t a competition: the sum is greater than the parts when you put them both together. And that’s the way that we approach it. That’s why we want to be number-one in e-commerce and we want to delight and thrill [customers] in our store networks.”

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