Andy O Brien, CEO, M&M Food Market

Since the pandemic began, the grocery industry has been at the forefront, rapidly adapting and implementing measures to ensure that Canadians continue to have access to safe food. “In Their Own Words”  brings the behind-the-scenes stories of retailers and suppliers to Grocery Business' readers.

Andy O’Brien, CEO, M&M Food Market

What measures has M&M Food Market taken to date to address the pandemic?

Very early on we had a team dedicated to closely monitoring coronavirus reports from around the world. We resolved to be a first mover and committed ourselves to quick, decisive action as the health emergency unfolded. More than 3,000 people go to work every day at M&M Food Market and when we were deemed an essential service, we took that responsibility seriously for the sake of our team and anyone who walked into our stores.

As COVID-19 made headlines in other countries, we postponed our national convention and suspended all business travel. We were among the first companies in the industry to close our head office and we ensured our staff had the equipment they needed to work remotely.

When we shifted into crisis response mode, our leadership team committed to daily discussions about three key pillars: aggressive safety measures for every member of our team and our customers, pulling out all the stops to manage product supply and meeting our customers’ food needs, and operational challenges such as altering store hours to suit shoppers’ new behaviours. Of course, communication was critical and we scheduled daily briefings to review challenges from the previous day and determine the best way to apply lessons to the present. 

While this crisis is not over, we were pleased that we had existing and long-established mechanisms in place that allowed us to respond quickly and with confidence. For example, our internal training and communication platform - The MENU - was upgraded in 2019 to be more training focused. That gave us the ability to broadcast information on evolving safety measures to stores across the country along with procedures and instructions on how to implement them. M&M Food Market also underwent a major product portfolio overhaul not long ago. Artificial flavours, colours and sweeteners were removed from everything we sell, which meant that people could fill their freezers without having to compromise on quality. We are also fortunate that our click and collect program has been an established part of our business for years. Its seamlessness is the result of smart people and knowing what Canadians expect from us. When government emergency orders were issued, ordering food for curbside pickup became the norm. We would never have been satisfied with long lineups or pickup windows that were two weeks away from the order date. Instead, we were able to honour our same-day guarantee.

What impact has COVID-19 had on M&M’s supply chain?

Like most supply chains, ours is a well-oiled machine and when COVID-19 sparked global disruption, our trusted and longtime partners and vendors were able to step up and get us to where we needed to be. 

In early March, we saw a massive spike in demand for our food. We knew it was coming but this was like nothing we had ever seen. Typically, we prepare for our busy periods 12 months in advance. In this case, we had only days to respond. Our Franchise Partners triggered a massive draw on inventory from our distribution centres. The pull was so strong that we were soon fulfilling store orders out of our safety stock. The call then went out to our suppliers to triple and, in some instances, quadruple their production. Back at the warehouse, we had another issue; they were operating on a skeleton staff, which meant trucks were slow to load.

Fortunately, we have spent the past several years expanding and improving every one of our supplier relationships. They are our partners in the truest sense of the term. When we saw that massive jump, we were already on solid footing for ramping up production. Make no mistake, it wasn’t easy. There were many late nights and we played catch-up for several weeks. Was it perfect? Not always. We worked through difficult logistical problems and we know there were instances where shoppers went home with something other than what they came in to buy because their first choices were temporarily out of stock. Nevertheless, the plans and strategies we had in place meant we didn’t need to start from scratch during a crisis.

What are your business takeaways from this experience?

We’ve talked about this quite a bit and I think our team can agree on three lessons.

First, it’s critical to have the right communications channels in place before a crisis hits. It’s not just about what you communicate but how quickly you can respond, answer questions and alleviate concerns. If we didn’t have an established platform in place and an innate understanding of what our audiences wanted to know from us, I can’t even comprehend where we’d be right now.

Second, people’s perception of food has changed in a profound way. At one time, people only settled for frozen products but now the frozen section of any grocery store is in a constant state of having to be replenished. In our case, shoppers were comfortable with the knowledge that the food they were serving to their families was safe, made of nutritious, quality ingredients and tasted great. We’ve spent a lot of time proving that to people and I think the past 15 weeks is more proof of the trust we’ve earned with Canadians.

Third, the pandemic continues to be stressful for everyone involved. From day one, we chose to set aside things like measuring profit margins and sales targets and, instead, focused on the well-being of our team. It’s been quite an experience to see people’s willingness to work long days and nights, but it can’t be at the expense of their health. We’ve been actively encouraging people to take time away to recharge and be with family and our business is stronger for it.

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