Metro fast tracks in-store tech to boost productivity, profits


Metro Inc. will fast-track adding technology tools, including self-service checkouts and electronic shelf labels, to its stores in a transformation that will help to lower labour costs, the grocer’s chief executive said Wednesday.

The Montreal-based company expects to have self-service checkouts in 100 stores by the end of its 2019 financial year, which ends Sept. 29. It will equip another 100 stores in the following year.

Meanwhile, Metro plans to install electronic shelf labels, which can digitally display and change prices, in 32 stores this year and 67 more stores next year.

“We are accelerating because the financial returns are better,” CEO Eric La Flèche said during a conference call with analysts after the company released its third-quarter financial results.

“The combination of factors that are motivating us to speed it up: because they’re addressing business needs, customer needs and providing decent returns.”

Improvements in the technology are helping to drive its costs down, La Flèche said. Such technology allows for better productivity, so Metro can reduce some employee hours as well as use it to fill gaps in areas where it is difficult to find employees, he added.

The move also appears to be well received by many customers who make small purchases and prefer to use the self-service checkout, he said.

The entire retail industry has been shifting toward automation in recent years in response to rising labour costs and as consumers demand more convenience, growing increasingly accustomed to online shopping and home delivery.

Metro’s competitor Loblaw Companies Ltd. said at its annual general meeting that artificial intelligence and automation will change the nature of work done in its offices, distribution centres and stores.

The grocer has been adding self-service checkouts and electronic shelf labels to its stores, and started implementing algorithms using consumer data to try and boost profits.

READ: Digital strategy paying off for Loblaw

However, the company recently admitted an overzealous attempt actually hampered sales in a recent quarter and the company is now correcting course.

The country’s major grocers are also investing in technology outside of their bricks-and-mortar operations. They’ve worked to boost their e-commerce offerings, prompted in part by online retail giant Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods and growing consumer demand for convenient options.

READ: Walmart Canada expands Instacart grocery delivery

Loblaw has expanded its click-and-collect model through which customers order online and pick-up in store, as well as home delivery. Empire Co. Ltd., which operates Sobeys, partnered with the British firm Ocado and is building an automated warehouse in the Greater Toronto Area and one in Montreal to fulfill online grocery orders.

READ: Sobeys unveils online home delivery brand

Metro, meanwhile, launched its online delivery service in Toronto earlier this year with orders picked by staff members at two stores, said La Flèche. The service is available to some 1.9 million households.

The company also reported Wednesday a third-quarter profit of $222.4 million, up from $167.5 million a year ago, as sales also climbed higher.

Sales totalled $5.23 billion, up from $4.64 billion, boosted by the addition of Jean Coutu Group. Food same-store sales were up 3.1%, while pharmacy same-store sales were up 3.4%.