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Empire: A Stand Out Strategy

Bonnie Birollo, SVP of Retail Operations, left and Geneviève Dugré, SVP of Operations, Quebec

by Brook Thalgott

Grocery Business caught up with Geneviève Dugré, Empire’s senior vice-president, operations for Quebec, and Bonnie Birollo, Empire’s senior vice-president, retail operations English Canada, to talk about Empire’s strategic leadership, the rollouts of Voilà and Scene+, and what sets Empire apart in the Canadian grocery industry.

The grocery industry has been through a lot over the last handful of years, thanks to a global pandemic, supply chain challenges and inflationary pressures. Empire, Canada’s second largest supermarket chain, not only weathered the storms, but also launched an award winning online grocery delivery platform and transitioned to a new customer rewards program in the midst of it all.

The big picture

Geneviève Dugré is based in Montreal and oversees the operations of corporate and affiliate stores throughout La Belle province. She joined Empire in 2013 in human resources and held various roles in the organization before her promotion to senior vice-president in 2023.

“To me, what makes Empire stand out when it comes to strategic leadership is that it’s still a family business,” says Dugré. “That ‘family business’ culture is still ingrained in the company, and it’s also within our affiliate stores, where many have been family businesses for generations.”

That family business orientation has created a culture where the idea of the local grocer is still deeply ingrained, and the business is closely tied to the communities it serves. “In both our affiliate and corporate stores, there are deep connections to the community. The stores are proud to be locally focused, and that is important to our customers and teammates. It’s one of our strategic strengths.”

A stroke of genius

Bonnie Birollo is Empire’s senior vice president, retail operations, based in Calgary. She got her first taste of the grocery industry when she was hired as a Safeway cashier at age 17. She spent many years in retail operations across several sectors before landing at Empire nine days before the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Birollo sees Empire’s strategic leadership stand out within its stores. “My job is to be the voice of our stores and the people who serve our customers. When our store teammates are enjoying their jobs, our customers feel it. A happy team means happy customers, and that is what sets us apart.”

Empire’s stores are often where new ideas are born, and Birollo is delighted to foster the talent and environment to make those ideas rise to the top. “Who would be better at knowing what our customers want than the people who work with them every day. For example, it was teammates in our Edmonton Belmont store that came up with the idea to offer ‘golden hour’ shopping for seniors and vulnerable shoppers during COVID. That idea turned into a worldwide phenomenon because our teammates saw what our customers needed, shared it and the business responded. That is the Empire strategic difference.”

In with the new

Online grocery shopping is relatively new to Canada, and Empire wanted to ensure the best possible customer experience when Voilà entered the market, leveraging its brand to connect with customers on the platform as it launched. Customers embraced it immediately, thanks to its convenience, product offering and level of service.

Voila saw success in its rollout in Ontario and Quebec thanks to the long-term brand loyalty Sobeys and IGA have with customers, according to Birollo. “Providing our customers with more choices to shop with us – in our bricks and mortar stores or online has strengthened our business overall. The halo effect is real.” Voila has seen excellent uptake across the regions, where basket sizes jumped to 3.5 times what brick-and-mortar stores see and customers who shop in store and online spend 1.5 times more overall with Empire.

“We have seen new customers using the service, as well as bigger basket sizes and more frequent shops in-store between online orders. Even with more price-conscious consumers, the good value of Voilà is paying off,” says Dugré.

Bringing the family together

Birollo was also deeply involved with the rollout of Scene+, the company’s new customer loyalty program. Her leadership was integral to the store transition from Air Miles to Scene+ through the regional rollouts, learning from each and implementing learnings as they went. “The rollout was fantastic thanks to careful planning, market research and teammate engagement. Identifying and removing pain points to get support and excitement from teammates was vital to our success,” says Birollo. “We ensured we answered all the questions before launch and built up the confidence of the program with our teammates. That excitement and engagement was key to our success.”

Plus, the deep connections to customers through teammates led to important learnings. For example, Birollo and her team learned that in Atlantic Canada, many customers saved their Air Miles to pay for their holiday dinners in December. “Because our teammates shared that, we were able to transition customers to Scene+ successfully by showing them that with the new program, they could still do their holiday shop using their rewards.”

Empire’s local family business approach was also instrumental in the launch of Scene+, in Quebec. “There were four launch phases, and Quebec was the last region to move to Scene+ March 2023. The rollout was tremendously successful,” says Dugré. “Because our stores are engaged liked entrepreneurs, we built up excitement by showing our teams why we were doing it, what the benefits are, and why it matters. That was a key factor. People need to know the ‘why,’ how they fit into it, and why they’re important to the success of it.”

Knowing “why” helped build buy-in among store leaders and teammates which in turn led to the needed excitement to share with customers. Customer loyalty penetration in Quebec was lower than in other regions, and there was a gap to fill with Scene+. Fortunately, Scene+ offered the right incentives for customers. Coupled with the enthusiasm of teammates and customers alike, the company is now seeing new loyalty members. “We’re getting there faster than we thought, and we’re happy to see all the new customers joining Scene+,” says Dugré.

Harnessing strengths

Empire is also committed to welcoming and supporting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) through its ranks. The company is working on its DE&I goals on several fronts, including recruitment, retention and sourcing. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion became a formal goal a few years ago, and you can see it now across Empire from the top down,” says Dugré. “In leadership alone, you can see the change. There is much more diversity than there was even five years ago.” She also points to efforts being made in human resources in languages, with more supports and services for French speakers.

As well, Empire is engaging on the supplier side, building relationships and opportunities for local, Indigenous and minority owned companies. In Quebec, there is an effort to work with Francophone suppliers, as well as Indigenous-led companies, to diversify suppliers and the products sold on store shelves.

Transparency and authenticity are also key as the company looks to the future – something that also stems from the company’s family business culture. “We empower teammates to bring forward their ideas. At It’s our people-powered focus that enables us to create the environment where we listen, share ideas and challenge ourselves to become better. That is part of innovation, and it’s something we thrive on. Some of our best ideas come from our team members sharing their ideas or concerns openly – just like a family member would.”

Bringing people together

For Birollo, Empire’s commitment to DE&I is an important part of her job. “We employ 130,000 people across our company, and diversity is huge,” she says. “From the top-down, we want to recruit and retain the best people with diverse perspectives and talent. It’s about the right candidate in the right role at the right time.”

She also points to the Empire Operational Leadership team, where there are an equal number of women and men at the table, and efforts to become even more inclusive “The inclusivity that starts at the top trickles down throughout the organization. We want everyone to feel like they have a place at Empire and so we work hard to create an environment that fosters care, trust, and respect for all.”

Like Dugré, Birollo sees Empire’s roots as a family business still a vital part of the company culture today. “It’s more than just saying we’re a family and have family values. It truly feels like family here. Our mantra of being a family nurturing families, is the guiding principle for how we do business, serve our teammates, our customers and invest in our communities.  We connect with each other like a family and express ourselves like it. Those conversations and debates about ideas have led to innovative programs that continue to drive the success of our business and create value for our teammates and customers.”

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