Sarah Joyce of Sobeys

When Sarah Joyce, senior vice president of e-commerce for Sobeys Inc., and her team began to build an innovative online grocery concept in Canada, expectations for success were high, but what they couldn’t have known was the phenomenal success they would experience when Voilà by Sobeys began its rollout amidst the pandemic in June 2020.

“Overnight we had the opportunity to become an essential service for Canadians when they needed us most,” recalls Joyce, who was a featured speaker of the Retail Council of Canada’s In Conversation with Retail Leaders in Canada series.

The staggering demand for online grocery, virtually overnight, meant that every element of the planned rollout changed.

“We had to increase the hiring our delivery teammates and we doubled the size of our fleet, and it was twice as many trucks as we thought we’d need. We had to work with supplier partners to revise expected assortment and ensure we were offering essential product reliably in stock and what they could handle at the time. We had to change safety protocols, increase cleaning and sanitation. Prior to going live, we thought we’d be delivering into people’s homes but then we had to work with being six feet apart on customers’ doorsteps and still try to achieve the white glove service.”

Lessons learned

Voilà by Sobeys has been in operation for close to one year in Canada and Empire continues to expand operations, adding new automated distribution centres in Montreal and Calgary, extending curbside pickup services to hundreds of stores across the country and expanding product assortment.

When asked what has surprised her, Joyce says the extent to which customers look to retailers for product innovation.

“They want us to show them what’s new. We had reduced assortment because of the pandemic but we’re now working with supplier partners to build back that assortment and keep adding products to the site. We have Farm Boy products on the site, as well as products for CHALO! and FreshCo. We’ve partnered with Oliver and Bonacini for restaurant-inspired ready-made meal solutions and we sold out in a day. You have to work harder as a retailer to get in front of your customers and facilitate the discovery. So half the battle is assisting them in the discovery.”

And while the company hoped for a positive response from customers, Joyce says the team was not expecting the “overwhelming positive response; it was beyond what we could have expected. We’re seeing consistent week after week growth and customer response about how much they love our teammates and the service. Our teammates have outshone the technology and are the heroes of our story. They’re our brand ambassadors taking care of the customers at their doorsteps. You would think in the digital world it would be something different but it’s phenomenal to see the human connection at the doorstep.”

She adds that while she can’t divulge specific growth numbers, Sobeys’ metrics on order volume growth have exceeded targets throughout the entire year.

“And our metrics on the customer experience side are 99 per cent accuracy with our net promotor score being over 85 per cent. That’s an important indication that we’re building something customers like and tell other people about it. Word of mouth referrals are our number one marketing channel.”

Joyce outlines three key lessons she’s learned from her experience.

“Be bold. If you look at our story, we saw the options and went out and found a better answer that resulted in a better experience. Be flexible. Accelerating our launch, reading customer feedback and reacting to it because we know the world is not staying still. Be human. Robots are interesting and cool, but the magic is our teammates and gold old fashioned customer service, even in today’s digital world.”

Future growth

Joyce says there is no doubt that Voilà by Sobeys will continue to grow but it will grow alongside bricks and mortar.

“E-commerce is the fastest growing segment of retail, but it does not mean people will stop shopping at full-service grocery stores. The majority of sales are going to be in stores for a very long time, but this is about choice for the customer and how they decide to shop. You need to be there for them for both. It’s not an either/or.”

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