Jeff Leger, president of Shoppers Drug Mart

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.

Jeff Leger, president, Shoppers Drug Mart

Much has been reported about the measures retailers have taken to address pandemic concerns. In the case of Shoppers Drug Mart, it offers a unique product mix when compared to most traditional grocery stores. How do the measures that SDM has taken in its stores differ from what we have seen in more traditional grocery stores?

Our stores have had to make so many changes in order to protect our teams and our customers. Similar to our grocery store counterparts, we’ve increased our sanitization efforts, reduced the number of people in stores and introduced physical distancing measures, such as physical barriers at our pharmacies and checkout lanes, and spacing markers – like one-way aisles and six feet distance markings on the floors.

Beyond our traditional front-of-shop, we had to look at our beauty departments, and their role during the pandemic. Given the layout of many of our stores, we couldn’t fully close them, so we needed to take additional steps to ensure safety. We stopped all cosmetic services, removed makeup, skin care and fragrance tester products and put the same barriers in place for the staff at cosmetic counters. 

When you think about pharmacies, these are frontline healthcare providers. More than ever, Canadians are turning to them for help, advice and support during this time. But they also provide injections and counselling, so they needed to have access to PPE and new protocols for protecting themselves and their patients. 

COVID-19 seems to have renewed consumers’ focus on health and wellness with data pointing to sales spike in immune-boosting, better-for-you type products from vitamins and supplements to food and beverages. How did this impact your supply chain?

Again, like most other retailers, the early days of the pandemic saw a lot of panic buying in our stores. The first thing we noticed was masks, followed closely by hand sanitizer or wipes. With the exception of products (like PPE) where there were worldwide shortages, the biggest challenge we faced was getting product from our distribution centres to our stores and onto our shelves before they sold out again. It was never about the actual supply; it was about the speed of restocking and our teams worked around the clock to keep our shelves as well-stocked as possible.

Additionally, early in the pandemic governments across the country instituted a limit on prescription medications, in most province from 100 day-supply to 30 days. This was done to help protect the supply chain, to minimize medication shortages and potential stock up situations. Today, most provinces have lifted that restriction and our stores continue to work one-on-one with patients to help manage their medications and health needs.

What are your business takeaways from this experience?

I feel like many business leaders have similar takeaways through this. We’ve all learned the importance of speed in decision making. COVID-19 changed business and operation models in a day, forcing companies to pivot and to accelerate plans. Early on, each day brought new challenges to manage or changes to implement and we didn’t have the luxury of time to analyze or map out strategies. 

This brought about our need for focus. We needed to be able to quickly remove the noise around less-priority areas, and focus our attention and resources on our essential offerings for our customers.

We’ve also been reminded about the importance of open communication – both internally and externally. From our perspective, Shoppers Drug Mart is a franchise system, which meant that more than ever we needed to ensure swift, accurate communication to our Associate owners, and the absolute necessity of a continuous feedback loop with them. Without our stores being aligned to the overall plans, we would not be able to continue serving Canadians, and protecting our team members.

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