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A supermarket operator with some serious savoir faire

Thirty-store Groupe Épicia in Quebec specializes in selling fine foods and fresh produce in smaller towns.

Quebec, as they say, is different, and that includes the dining-room table. “The relationship we have with food in Quebec is very European. We stay around the table for the evening. In the rest of Canada, food is secondary,” says JoAnne Labrecque, a retailing professor at business school HEC Montreal.

Quebec eating habits also show up in its many stores dedicated to fine and fresh foods. Among the best is 30-store Groupe Épicia Inc.

The Magog, Que.-based retailer has carved a niche for itself in small towns such as Beloeil, Granby, Mont St. Hilaire and larger centres including Quebec City and Sherbrooke. The chain has yet to dip a toe into Montreal, the province’s gastronomy centre, but it’s contemplating it.

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Groupe Épicia’s concept of combining fine and imported foods with vegetarian produce, sub-contracted boutique butchers and catered takeout has made it the leading independent purchaser of produce in the province.

It’s also one of Quebec’s Top 100 businesses, with sales “in excess of $100 million” and 1,400 employees, says company president, Marcel Paré (pictured).

The chain grew from a single branch of retailer Jardin Mobile, in 1975, in Quebec City, and came together through a series of purchases of small grocers: Le Marché Végétarien, Les Arpents Verts, Jardin du Mont, leading to the formation of the Groupe Épicia, in 2011.

The stores (which still fly all the above banners) differ only in size, and about half have pre-packed meat and bread as opposed to in-house butchers and bakers.

Paré, 55, learned his trade at Metro, IGA and Steinberg’s, where he started as a bag boy and rose to store manager. Co-president since 2002, he was recently named Groupe Épicia’s sole president and is bullish about his company’s business.

In particular, Paré points to the company’s IT system, which, he says, is better than the chains and the envy of retailers who visit. Computers track in real time the inventory of every piece of fruit and every piece of cheese at every store.

Épicia always knows what’s selling where and how close each item is to spoilage or its best-before date. “No one does that,” says Paré. “The quality of our information is unique and specific.”

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It’s also a money-saver. Food not selling in one store is trucked to another where the computer shows it’s selling. Even cheese is moved around according to the appetites of individual stores. Therefore, Paré says, spoilage is reduced and money is saved. Only 2% of the cheese selection is lost, thanks to Épicia’s IT system, he says.

Also key, Paré says, is personalized service. Staff will lead a customer to a product rather than tell them where it is. As soon as two customers are lined up at the cash, another cashier is summoned and another checkout opens. And when the cashiers are not ringing up sales, they’re working the shelves or bagging produce.

“Store managers are trained to choose the proper profile. No one with a ‘wooden face’ ,” he says.

Service and in-store ambiance are clearly visible during a tour of Groupe Épicia’s 18,000-square-foot showpiece Marché Végétarien store, in Sherbrooke, which was recently renovated at a cost of $1.5 million. Fresh produce glistens under brilliant light on undulating shelves (what the company calls its “waves”).

Aisles are stocked to take advantage of the complementary colours of the packaging. Brightly wrapped biscuits in primary colours are stacked horizontally next to shiny vertical juice boxes, a regimen dictated from designers at head office.

The store attracts about 1,200 or more shoppers every weekday, says manager, Pier-Luc Veilleux, 25, who spend between $20 and $22 each visit. The information is a few keyboard clicks away on the IT system.

Dented cans are never displayed and all labels are face forward in neat rows; staff re-face the shelves twice daily, at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and at closing time.

Sherbrooke offers 450 cheeses (with one at $100 a kilo), premium cuts of meat and imported fine foods.

An independent caterer fills the ready-to-eat sections with 250 salad recipes in rotation, offering 16 to 20 each day. The ready-to-eat section is a big seller at noon and after work, Veilleux says.

Groupe Épicia stores in Sherbrooke and Quebec City rely on customers with steady government jobs. In smaller towns, the chain has carved a niche market for itself among people with a zest and the disposable income for the convenience of ready-to-eat and good cheese, fancy olive oil and organic produce.

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The stores brim with perfectly displayed fresh produce, organic and health foods, ready-to-eat complete meals as well as salad bars, sandwiches and even fresh plastic-wrapped pizzas ready to be popped into the oven.

There are also wines and imported soft drinks, an olive bar and oils and vinegars sold in bottles or bulk where shoppers help themselves from containers. If a customer returns the olive oil or vinegar bottle for a refill, it’s discounted.

Paré says his stores are a second or third stop for most customers, after a supermarket and maybe a large pharmacy that also sells groceries. So the challenge is not only to offer superior quality and service, but good value as well.

“We’re not Westmount,” says Paré, alluding to Montreal’s swankiest neighbourhood. “And at the pharmacies it’s price, price, price. So for the same price we have to be the BMW instead of the Volkswagen.”

While larger chains have hundreds of stores to stock with fruit and vegetables, Épicia has only 30, and to that end has six fruit and vegetable buyers on staff. Four are at the Marché Centrale in Montreal, where trucks laden with produce from all over arrive day and night.

The other two buyers are at the company’s warehouses in Magog, Quebec City and Granby to verify the produce before it’s shipped to the stores.

A fleet of 11 trucks ferries hand-picked produce between the Montreal market and the warehouses six days a week. The retailer also tries to eliminate wholesalers and their service fees wherever possible. They even have someone make their all-natural peanut butter.

Quebecers spend more than $1.5 billion a year in specialty grocery shops, says one of the chain’s premier investors, Pierre Simard, president and chairman of the board of Corporation Financement Champlain, which told him Épicia was a good bet.

“People are still looking to specialty stores to buy their fruit and vegetables. In Quebec City, we’re second to Metro in produce sales. We’ve been able to hold the fort and Marcel is a big part of the success. He’s a straightforward, no bull kind of guy.”

But the competition is a killer. A recent study showed that the number of independent fruit and vegetable retailers in Quebec dropped to 194, from 308, between 2005 and 2009. Groupe Épicia shut down its own store in the Montreal suburb of Rosemere in 2006 after only seven months.

Paré says he is looking carefully at establishing a store in Montreal, “perhaps Outremont or Le Plateau,” he says, both high-income enclaves. But, he says, perhaps still stung from the company’s Rosemere experience, “opening a new store is not hard. Keeping it going is tougher.”

Labrecque thinks Épicia’s unique model and format might help it to stand out. Épicia’s decision, for instance, to contract to independent suppliers its butcher and its take-out salad bar and ready-to-eat section translated into superior customer service and set it apart from other food retailers.

“They give very personal service because it’s their own business,” says Labrecque. “And that’s an important difference.”

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