The latest eagerly awaited instalment in the award-winning series ‘shops what fat boy went to in Canada’ concerns itself with all things grocery. I’ve been to Canada a few times on business and have seen quite a few grocery outlets in a fairly piecemeal fashion, but my recent odyssey was the first chance I’ve had to compare and contrast various formats from all of the major players (with the exception of Safeway and Overwaitea) at the same time.
I’d like to think that last week’s rambling piffle covered off my thoughts on Walmart, but for those who missed that bleeding edge piece of incisive analysis or have a short attention span, here’s a brief reminder. Some of the new Supercentres I encountered were fantastic examples of how Walmart has become an excellent grocery retailer. Impressive merchandising, good assortment, tremendous pricing and an improving private label portfolio mean that Walmart Supercentres have evolved to become a genuinely engaging place to shop grocery and one that I would happily give my cash to, were I fortunate enough to live in Canada. Hooray for Walmart.
On to the rest. May as well start with the biggest: Loblaw. Now, there were a number of things that struck me as I shopped the various formats under the Loblaw umbrella, but the main observation concerns private label. Everywhere you looked, private label. The President’s Choice brand and its various incarnations (healthy, organic, premium, standard, household etc.) were to be found at every turn, while the fairly unsubtle (translation: migraine-inducing yellow) No Name economy range was being merchandised to great effect.
The Joe Fresh apparel range – which I have to say was incredibly well done in terms of quality, pricing and merchandising – was superlative. I would comment on the fashion credentials of the range, but I really have no right to do so. What do I know about fashion?
The other observation (which I discovered while channel surfing for Iron Chef, Deadliest Catch and the World Cup) on President’s Choice would be that it is cleverly positioned as an independent FMCG brand in its own right. The range is marketed by Loblaw with no reference to itself or any of its chain store identities. On the one hand, this obviously makes sense for a multi-banner operator, while on the other it means that PC has grown into a massively well-known and trusted brand it its own right. As Loblaw itself states in its TV spots: worth switching supermarkets for.
In terms of the stores, the Loblaws I visited was its usual self: perfectly pleasant place to shop, but with a faint hint of big box sterility despite the attempts at character with murals on the walls.
Zehrs was an altogether more charming affair (the wooden ceiling and décor helped in this regard) and the produce area was a bit more enticing than in the Loblaw outlet. The Joe Fresh apparel department was awesome too.
Provigo was a welcoming and interesting supermarket with the highlight being a well signposted and convincing display of local produce and cheeses.
Maxi & cie was a bit of a disappointment. I get the fact that it is a price-driven proposition and therefore aesthetics are not top of the agenda, but shopping in there put me in mind of a mediocre French hypermarket in the 1990s. Piling it high and selling it cheap still has a place in this world for many consumers, but Maxi, for me at least, was a slightly cheerless and dispiriting experience.
The final Loblaw concept I saw was a significantly more uplifting affair.
As a European, when I hear the words ‘independent grocery retailer’ my heart usually sinks, as an independent supermarket is generally not an enriching moment. So it was with a slight air of trepidation that I disembarked my car outside of a Your Independent Grocer. What I discovered however - and the same would apply to IGA - is proof that independent stores, when looked after properly by a bigger grocery retailer, can provide a winning combination of a truly tailored local offer with the private label, pricing, merchandising and marketing benefits that being part of a national group can provide. Customer service was excellent, ranging and merchandising was top-drawer and the pricing was on a par with most other stores I visited. The addition of the Joe Fresh fashion range rounded out the offer nicely. Really, really good stuff.
Metro – the grocer that was enlarged through the acquisition of A&P Canada – offered a few interesting formats. Its eponymous chain was a pretty solid offer with quite a few classy touches in produce and ready meals, while its Selection and Irresistible private label ranges presented a nice array of choices in many categories. I also liked the natural & organic lines.
Super C, on the other hand, was much like Maxi & cie in that it was a big box take on discounting: efficient, good value-for-money, but a bit like a supermarket had accidently replenished a Home Depot. The one touch I liked was the differentiation between the Le Marché fresh section and the Le Depot bulk ambient department – it managed expectations very well and made the store easy to shop.
Marché Richelieu was a great little store. Operated by an independent retailer, the supermarket I visited had the misfortune of externally resembling a municipal bus garage, but once inside, the store managed to pack in an excellent fresh department, a surprisingly ample wine offer and a very creditable food-to-go offer alongside more standard supermarket fare. The lobster tank was merely an added bonus.
Onto Sobeys, possibly my favourite among the big three. I couldn’t manage to find one of their new FreshCo stores (and I noted with interest that Coronation Street is broadcast in Canada, so I reckon they just nicked the name off the supermarket in Weatherfield), but I saw quite a few of their other offerings.
Sobeys itself was as good as I remembered. Excellent service counters, great prepared foods offer and a rapidly improving private label portfolio. The value range has been markedly enhanced through the replacement of the Compliments Value/Economique range with the S!gnal economy line. The line was launched after customer feedback indicated that there was a degree of customer confusion between the existing economy and standard lines as both bore the Compliments brand. Indeed, having shopped a store that stocked both S!gnal and some residual Compliments Economique lines, I can confirm both that the Economique range was less than clear in its positioning and also that S!gnal – with its distinctive colour scheme and very strong on-shelf presence – provides much greater clarity and also a stronger value message.
As well as Compliments and S!gnal, I was particularly taken by the very stylish and well-merchandised Gourmet Minute range of chilled convenience and ready-to-eat foods. Ranging from sandwiches and salads to ready-to-heat prepared entrees, the products are freshly prepared daily instore from home-style ingredients and recipes and are displayed very effectively at the front of stores alongside other perishable and meal solution ranges.
The Sobeys concept that really impressed was IGA Extra. As with Your Independent Grocer, I approached my first IGA store with low expectations, but was blown away by the quality of the stores. All of the same PL observations as Sobeys applies to the IGA concept, but the extremely high standard of store design, lay-out, merchandising and availability meant that IGA Extra has become one of my all-time favourites. The couple of stores I saw that had a Rachelle-Berry health & wellness implant really benefited from the addition – another extra dimension to an already compelling proposition.
Other stores of note in the grocery arena included:
LCBO (the Ontario booze monopoly that offers a great selection of local and international beers, some cracking local wines – am I alone in being surprised that Canada makes nice wine? – and a marvellous array of whisky)
McEwan (a new retail/foodservice concept from celebrity chef Mark McEwan in Don Mills, ON. The store looked pretty amazing. No photos I’m afraid as I was too busy hyperventilating with excitement in the nearby Murale store, more of which next week. If you’re interested, McEwan store details can be found here: www.mcewanfoods.com)
Fresh & Wild (a fairly transparent lifting of the Fresh & Wild stores in London, UK, before they were converted to Whole Foods. No photos, as I was too busy trying to locate a Tim Hortons for a pile of meat and cheese for breakfast. Details here: www.freshandwild.ca)
Whole Foods Market (I particularly like the store in Oakville)
Bulk Barn (quite an intriguing concept)
M&M Meat shops (is this the last specialist meat chain left on earth? They do a brilliant job with value-added products like ready-prepared kebabs and marinated cuts)