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08/24/2021

Western ambition

Darrell Jones on how Save-On-Foods is always working to be the best in the West
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Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones. Photography by Tanya Goehring

After 45 years in the grocery business, Darrell Jones still brims with positivity. He loves people (his favourite part of the job), he loves the grocery industry, and by his estimate, Canada is “the greatest place on Earth to do business.”

Given his track record, Jones has good reason to be positive. Since ascending to the top post as president of Save-On-Foods in 2012, Jones has deftly guided the Jim Pattison-owned company through an ambitious growth plan. Under his watch, more than 50 stores have been added to the chain’s network (a 42% increase, with more than 180 stores now under the Save-On-Foods, Urban Fare, PriceSmart Foods and Bulkley Valley Wholesale banners) and the chain has extended its reach beyond British Columbia (its home base) and Alberta, to the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as the North with the opening of a store in Whitehorse in 2017.

And this year, in particular, is shaping up to be a big one for Jones. In February, he was tapped to head The Pattison Food Group, a new structure formed to unite Pattison’s grocery businesses, which, along with Save-On-Foods includes Buy-Low Foods and Quality Foods, as well as the group’s specialty and wholesale divisions. In June, Save-On-Foods claimed top spot in BC Business magazine’s annual ranking of most-loved brands in the province for the second year running—suggesting the chain is living up to its “going the extra mile” mantra. And in July, Jones was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year 2021, Pacific, a prestigious award that recognizes “visionary entrepreneurs.” 

Canadian Grocer recently spoke with Jones about everything from Save-On-Foods’ expansion plans to e-comm and the challenges ahead. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

The company has been around for more than a century. As you set Save-On-Foods up for the future, what will be the key areas of focus?

We’re going to continue expanding throughout the West. For the last five years, we’ve opened up about five to 10 stores a year, so we’ll continue that kind of expansion. But, more than just stores, we’ll be making sure we have the right things that we need to deliver to the customer. That’s why we put e-commerce—either click-and-collect or delivery or both—in every one of our stores. That’s really important to us.

And it’s also really important, as we come out of the pandemic, to make sure everybody’s feeling comfortable going back into the stores. Soon the masks will be gone and things will get back to normal and we need to be there to support our team members and our customers as they go through that process. That’s a short-term [focus]. Long term, it’s all about being focused on, as we say, “giving the customers what they want, where they want it and how they want it.” Our mission statement is customer-first. That’s been our mantra for the last 106 years.

You mentioned continued expansion—can you tell us a bit more about those plans?

We have two new stores planned for Vancouver Island. We’ve got three or four right in the lower mainland, greater Vancouver. We have a new store in the plans for Regina and for Saskatoon, and we’ve got a couple of stores planned for Alberta as well. So, we’ve got about eight or so stores in the pipeline, in different parts of Western Canada. And we’ve probably got that many slated for next year, as well.

As you continue to expand the business with new stores, how do you ensure the level of service that Save-On-Foods prides itself on is carried across the entire network?

That is probably the most difficult job you can have in the retail food business—to maintain the consistency of your service. And I think it happens when you make that almost the cornerstone of what you do. In other words, you try to hire people with a really good attitude and train them for whatever you need them to do. So, that’s really important. And also [it’s about] having great communication to your management staff, to your team members, all the way down the line, and appreciating what they do and not taking them or your customers for granted. We have service awards every year where we have a dinner, and hand out various awards for years of service; and we try to recognize all kinds of milestones that people have. So anything you can do to show them [employees] they’re not just a number, that they’re a part of a hundred-and-some-year-old organization that cares about them. And if you show you care about your team members, they’re going to reflect that in how they take care of the customers. That’s our philosophy. It’s always a challenge when you grow and you’re going into new provinces to continue to do that, but we’ve been fortunate in keeping that rolling along.

Meals have been identified as one of the big opportunities ahead for grocers. Would you agree?

Absolutely. Having meals-to-go and meal suggestions for customers is important. Customers want to come in and have a meal ready for them to pick up. Our goal is for the customer to be able to order their groceries online, and also say, “Oh, by the way, I want this for dinner,” and for us to able to deliver that [hot meal]. We’re not able to do it yet, but that’s where we want to be. We’re in the midst of building a commissary so we can produce and have super products available for our customers along with what we make today in the stores. But there’s no question, particularly for full-service supermarkets—maybe less so for the discounters—that you better be able to deliver on what the customer’s looking for. And that is definitely a meal solution for tonight, and one that’s not going to be a lot of work for them. So, that’s going to be a big part of the business going forward. Today, it’s really a share of stomach that you’re looking for as opposed to just share of groceries.

So that’s an opportunity. On the flipside, what is the big challenge ahead?

Competition in the marketplace. There are so many online participants selling groceries—offering groceries at good prices and maybe not so good prices. And now restaurants and grocery stores are starting to compete for some of the same customers. It’s never been more competitive in the retail food business than it is today. Period! We were fortunate to have e-commerce [prior to the pandemic]. E-commerce used to be a nice thing to have, now it’s the cornerstone of your business—it continues to grow and grow and grow.

Can you talk about Save-On-Foods’ e-commerce strategy?

We decided five or six years ago that we didn’t want to third-party the experience that the customer gets at any point when they deal with our company. We have hundreds of vans that pick up groceries from the store and deliver them right to the customer’s door. And when groceries get picked in our stores, we get our more experienced people to pick the fresh products to make sure the lettuce is the best, the grapes are the best, et cetera. All of this is to make sure the groceries that get delivered are the very best and freshest possible. It’s really important to us that we control the groceries from the time they get picked in our stores to when they get delivered to the customer’s home.

You’ve invested heavily in e-comm, making it available at every store. What has been the biggest pain point in rolling this out?

It’s the technology, the glitches that happen—the things that annoy your customers that you maybe don’t have as much control of as you might like; for instance, if something’s gone wrong with their order. And the last mile is really important and it’s the most costly part of delivery. But your focus has to be on the customer as opposed to the transaction, because we know customers will shop three ways—they’ll shop online for pickup, and for delivery, and they’ll shop in person. The experience always has to be fantastic, no matter how you slice it, if you want to keep those customers as your very good customers, because it’s just so competitive today.

As part of your e-comm strategy, you’re adding automation—can you tell us more about that?

There are two pieces to that. We’re actually adding automation to one of our existing warehouses here in Vancouver and we’re building an additional automated warehouse in Edmonton. And we’re going to be exploring automated picking inside of a store—we’ve got a large store with an automated section where a machine will pick a customer’s grocery order and our experienced people will still pick the fresh stuff. The first of those will be underway next year. So definitely automation is going to become a bigger part of reality; it’s going to continue to grow and be a big part of our business moving forward.

Now that pandemic concerns are easing, there seems to be renewed urgency around sustainability. Save-On-Foods has set some ambitious goals; can you talk about the company’s progress and priorities in this area?

Our goal is by the end of 2022 to have zero food waste. Zero! What that means is when we have products we feel aren’t optimal to sell, rather than getting thrown away they are put to the best possible use. The first place they go to is food banks that can take them; next they go to the farm—to animals—and then the final thing to do with the products is turn them into soil. We’re excited to say, we think we’ll be able to get to zero food waste by 2022. And we have companies that work with us that are allowing us to get there. We’re also part of the [Canada Plastics Pact] plastics initiative, which I’m proud to say [a lot of companies in] the food industry are participating in—trying to eliminate and lessen the number of plastics being used. And then when it comes to saving energy, for the last 20 years we’ve had our stores using progressively less power. There’s a lot on the go and [sustainability] is something that’s at the forefront of everything we do and think about as we put our new stores together.

Earlier this year you became head of the new Pattison Food Group—formed to unite Jim Pattison Group’s food businesses. What’s the advantage of this move?

There are two or three things that will really get quick synergies, things like IT. So we’re now able to have one IT platform and profile that we can put through all of the stores [in the Group] and that’s really a big, quick win for us. Also, when it comes to buying synergies, the ability for us to be able to buy for all the companies through a central procurement is a really good opportunity for the companies to reduce their cost of goods. So, that’s certainly a needed one. But the one thing that’s critical to us is we don’t want to do anything that will change the relationships the banners have with their customers. You don’t want the customers ever to feel or think that there’s anything that’s different, because we know they go to Quality Foods because they want the Quality Foods experience. The same thing with Choices Markets, et cetera. So, it gives us the opportunity to get the behind-the-scenes synergies on all kinds of things that help lower costs so we can give our customers the best possible prices. And [members of the Pattison Food Group] are great people and we can learn from each other. It’s also a huge opportunity for people to be able to move from one banner to another and to grow their career. So, that’s where the big wins are.

Finally, what would you say is the best part of your job?

No question. It’s the people. People are fantastic! And one of the biggest challenges in your business is trying to find the right people. It’s difficult sometimes to get the right talent that you need. Talent today, particularly in areas like IT, is really, really tough to get, because everybody’s offering more money, more money, more money. So at the end of the day, you have to figure out how to make it about something more than just money.

But this is a people business. Sure, you retail groceries, but at the end of the day, it’s all about people. They’re the ones who make the company a success or a failure. It’s not the brilliance of the management; it’s the quality of the people.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's August 2021 issue.