Sarah Davis, president of Loblaw Companies Limited

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures; grocery retailers and food manufacturers have implemented such measures to ensure that Canadians continue to have access to safe food. Grocers have modified their in-store practices and suppliers have changed manufacturing processes and their supply chains to address unprecedented demand. “In Their Own Words”  brings the behind-the-scenes stories to Grocery Business' readers.

Sarah Davis, president, Loblaw Companies Limited

It’s been three months since our business had its first Corona virus business plan review. After that meeting, we started to ‘temporarily’ send people home from offices and began looking at different scenarios of what might happen in our stores as the pandemic reached Canadian soil. It’s been a long three months and yet, the time has really flown by. So much has changed in how we work together, how we move products, how our stores operate and how our customers shop with us.

And, I can’t help but feel that Canadians have a new appreciation for the industries we work in. 

Crisis leadership initiatives

I think we were impacted by the pandemic a bit earlier than most retailers in Canada. In late January, there were fake social media posts about a butcher getting carried out of a T&T store by men in hazmat suits. Even though the claims were fake, it rattled us a bit and it gave us the experience of dealing with colleague and customer responses.   

At that time, we took the approach of keeping our teams and customers “calm and informed.” We’ve stuck with that approach, which has meant throughout this whole process we have relied on the best available information, feedback from our colleagues and customers and routine communication, including daily to our colleagues and regularly to our customers through our PC Optimum platform.

We spent a lot of time over the last year refining our approach to crisis management, and in fact, had a new crisis committee and playbook that we were able to turn to. We quickly pulled together a working group of leaders from all areas of the business that might be affected, and asked them to model, plan and ultimately to recommend how areas of the business would operate in this new world. It was incredible how quickly we moved through the phases that we had anticipated. Then, as a leadership team, we started meeting daily to ensure decisions would be made swiftly, communicated swiftly and executed swiftly. It was a large company demonstrating agility at its best.

Because of this, we were quick to introduce dedicated shopping hours for seniors, free online shopping through PC Express, and we rapidly ramped up staffing to meet the new demand. We were also quick to implement safety measures to protect customers and colleagues alike.

It has been energizing to see strong leadership at all levels throughout this crisis.  Stores supporting their neighbours. Colleagues donating to seniors. Pharmacists working tirelessly for patients. Nurses from our business supporting provincial telehealth lines. Technical experts increasing capacity for digital grocery and pharmacy to serve vulnerable people. I’m not sure I can express how proud I am to lead this incredible team of people in a business that I love.

Impact on the supply chain

This feels like old news now, but throughout March and into early April, we had unimaginable volumes passing through our stores. After rushes on products you might expect like masks and hand sanitizer, we were suddenly faced with panic buying of toilet paper, flour and rice.

Our store and distribution centre teams worked long and hard days to get us into the best shape possible, to help replenish our shelves as worried Canadians prepared themselves for uncertainty. Early on, we did what we could to reassure customers about the strength of the Canadian supply chain, and to reiterate that there was no shortage of food or essential supplies, just heavy demand and limited time to restock.

Since that time, governments have made policy changes that helped free up supply and get more trucks on the road, meaning more frequent deliveries. We’ve worked in partnership with vendors to get the products Canadians need.

Business takeaways from the experience

Loblaw is a family-owned business and has been an ‘essential service’ to Canadians for more than 100 years. For many years, our purpose has been “helping Canadians live life well.” Earlier this year we started to put a heavy focus on making Loblaw a purpose-led business. We never imagined we would have an opportunity to demonstrate that purpose so quickly or so thoroughly.

When you think of it, our COVID response has really been about helping Canadians live life well.

One of the lessons our business has fully embraced, is to aim for speed over elegance. We know we’re not always going to get it right, but we make decisions with the customer and colleague in mind, and are prepared to make changes as quickly. 

Beyond this, I would say my biggest takeaway is to never underestimate the importance of communication. There has been a very positive response to our efforts to be transparent with our customers and colleagues, telling people what’s going on at all levels. Some of what we’re sharing is very basic details – what’s happening at a local store or what to expect with our ecommerce platforms. Sometimes we share great customer stories, a great recipe or even just interesting articles about dealing with isolation. But all of it comes from a place of authenticity and trust.

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