Fresh Perspectives with Sobeys’ Yan Branco and Mireille Thibodeau

In this ongoing series, Canadian Grocer catches up with produce leaders from across the country

Fresh Perspectives is an ongoing series from Canadian Grocer, in partnership with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA), where we check in with produce leaders from across the country to find out how consumer behaviours are changing, what are the biggest challenges for produce and what is the outlook for this critical department?

For this edition we talk to Sobeys’ Yan Branco, vice-president, produce sourcing, and Mireille Thibodeau, vice-president, fresh merchandising. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Yan BrancoWhat are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in terms of shopper behaviour in recent months?
THIBODEAU: I would say customers are shopping at fewer banners, having bigger baskets and doing fewer trips, so they’re looking more for a one-stop shop. They are choosing stores, for sure, based on convenience (what is closest to home) and with the pandemic we are seeing that their choice of store is based on safety procedures [carried out at the store]; this is really something new with the pandemic. We also see that customers are more willing to buy in bigger quantities, again because they are shopping less often and they are cooking more from scratch; this is a trend that we think will continue for the next couple of years.

Produce is a big department with a lot of variables, what are the challenges with this area of the store?
BRANCO: If there’s an overarching thing here it is availability of supplies. And there are two major factors within that — labour and Mother Nature. So from a labour standpoint, the growers, especially in the U.S. have been challenged with labour for a number of years. On our side of the border I think because of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the situation was better, but COVID has really highlighted our dependency on that program and the lack of labour in the country. So that’s a challenge and it’s putting a strain on [growers] operations. And then Mother Nature — in recent years weather patterns have been changing, sometimes like a roller coaster.

How do you address those challenges?
BRANCO: It’s important for us to mitigate risk by not putting all of our eggs in the same basket. So having the right number of suppliers lined up on a given commodity or having the ability to pivot to other production areas whenever possible. Examples of the challenges I just mentioned are B.C. blueberries; the weather was extremely cold in B.C. so the whole crop came out later than usual. Or closer to home, here in Ontario with the stone fruit program, because of those swings in the weather in the spring, it created gaps between the varieties, so obviously for us, it’s painful in terms of managing through the lack of supplies. And then it becomes almost like a feast or famine situation, depending on the timing and the season and what varieties are up. Communication is key with our supplier partners, there’s no doubt about it.

Mireille ThibodeauSo will local produce play a more important role going forward?
BRANCO: Absolutely. First off, it’s important to understand that supporting local farmers and suppliers has been at the core of our values at Sobeys since the foundation of the company. And we have a local development management team in a number of regions that are working with small suppliers from coast to coast and their motto is “there is no supplier too small for Sobeys”. So having that team on  board is really a testament to our commitment.

What categories are thriving in your produce departments?
THIBODEAU: Organic is a trend that is growing year after year and we expect that this growth will continue — organic is growing at a faster pace than conventional products. And we will continue to develop this offer, again sourcing the best quality available for the best eating experience.

What’s driving consumers toward organics do you think?

THIBODEAU: People are more conscious about what they eat and where the food is coming from. And the sustainability [aspect] is also part of it.

What’s the most innovative produce product you’ve seen recently?
BRANCO: I can tell you that everyone internally is very excited about the partnership we have with Infarm. It’s a very innovative idea where we have standalone [vertical] farming units right in the store. It brings really freshly grown herbs and greens right in our stores. You can’t beat the freshness and the taste and the theatre that it creates for our customers walking into the store. And again it meets the consumer demand in terms of being 100% local. The produce is being naturally grown with no pesticides or any sorts of chemicals. So we started out [installing the units] on the West Coast, they’re in about 23 stores right now at Safeway and Thrifty Foods, but there’s a plan, I believe, over the next year or two to roll it out across the country in a number of stores.

What’s your best strategy for minimizing shrink?
THIBODEAU: We do have a lot of strategies in place; you may be aware that in January 2019 we, along with other leading grocery retailers in Canada, announced a plan to reduce food waste by 50% by 2025. So we are reducing food loss and waste in our stores, in our warehouses and also across our supply chain. It’s really a priority here at Sobeys and we are working with partners across the country to reduce our waste and we’re engaging with customers as well, for reducing waste at home. I can give you some examples of the things we’re doing: we are redistributing as much surplus food as possible through the food bank — and we have established regional partnerships across the country for that. We also have a really high-quality in-store made meal program that we are really proud of that offers fresh meal solutions for customers and that helps us manage our [surplus] supplies at store level well. We are also using technology, AI, to better forecast accuracy across our supply chain to help us reduce surplus. And another really innovative thing in the past year is we’ve launched the mobile app FoodHero in 200 IGA stores, so the idea here is to offer customers discounted items on perishable foods [nearing their best before date]. It’s working pretty well and we are deploying it across Quebec and are looking for other opportunities across the country.

What is the outlook for produce?
BRANCO: Despite the challenges, I think there are exciting things on the horizon. I think we’ll see more innovation to address challenges such as automation to address labour issues. And indoor farming will be, I think, the next big thing. And then on the consumer side, I think they are more and more health conscious and will be expecting products that have less miles and provide a great eating experience. I think here at Sobeys we’re up for the challenge, and we’ll continue to work with our supplier partners through those challenges, and will lead on innovation to meet those expectations from the customer.