A grocer’s raison d’être

IGA's Annick Gazaille talks about how she built a better grocery store

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After 10 years running an IGA Extra in Magog, in Quebec’s Eastern Township, Annick Gazaille decided to open a new store that offers a number of health and well-being concepts unique to the area, and to Sobeys in Quebec. Here she discusses the thinking behind Marché Gazaille.

CANADIAN GROCER: Why did you open a new store?

ANNICK GAZAILLE: The former store was no longer responding to client demands. It was 20,000 square feet. There were many innovations we couldn’t offer because the space didn’t allow it. In the last year and a half we were in declining growth and we knew that would increasingly be the case. We had a decision to make: Do we accept constant decline and being last in the market, or position ourselves as first?

How big is the new store?

It’s about 42,000 square feet of selling space. The other store had just one small row of organic food, no gluten-free section and we weren’t meeting new trends. Here, we have four rows of organic food, a row exclusively devoted to gluten-free products and a Rachelle-Béry [Sobeys-owned health-food chain]. It (the retail concept) is totally different and we see it because our customers are totally different.

What were the challenges opening the store?

The challenge was in telling people we’re a small store in a large surface: to make them understand that each department is a small business within my business. I didn’t want to be a big Walmart with impersonal service. It’s the service, the soul of the store, that really makes the difference. I said my next store would be a school of food. I didn’t just want a grocery store and I firmly believe that the owner has a big role to play in teaching the community what it means to eat well.

READ: Tour IGA Extra in the Eastern Townships

What did you want to have in the store?

I wanted to create–it’s a bit egotistical– a grocery store that answered my personal needs. I needed to have a living food section, so there’s raw food and the Crudessence [raw and organic food banner] concept. For beer, I like discovery, so we made a microbrew store. There are lots of small local players who never had a place on shelves that we went looking for, who make super beers but don’t have the exposure. I also put in a Rachelle-Béry, which is important for me because it’s all alternative medicine. I like tisanes and teas a lot, so I have a corner with teas in bulk and medicinal plants. For me, food is one of our medicines and we can heal ourselves with food. We’re the only IGA with a Crudessence and the tea section. It’s all a bit of a prototype. But Sobeys said, ‘Try it and we’ll see what it brings.’ It’s the same thing with the enlargement of the beer section to allow more microbrews.

Did you have problems with the big brewers such as Molson or Labatt?

It wasn’t welcomed with joy. The brewers told us, ‘We have the market, why aren’t you going along with us? We have agreements with the banner.’ Yes, I know, but the customer who buys Labatt Blue or Coors Light can get it in the store, no problem. But I’m not obligated to make a monstrous display and not give space to others. I’m not a threat to Molson or Labatt. They were understanding. They said, ‘We don’t agree, but you’re the owner.’

How have customers reacted to the new store?

It’s been three months and a lot of the feedback we’re getting is, ‘Wow, your store is super cool. Every time I go there I learn something.’ For me, it’s mission accomplished. Because that’s what I wanted to do– educate people about eating. It’s not just eating for eating’s sake; it’s about how to get pleasure out of eating better.

READ: IGA Extra in Eastern Townships opens with focus on health

What else is different in your store?

We’re working a lot with local partners. The tea and tisanes are run by a girl who has a store in Magog, called L’Infusion Boutique, so it’s a business in my business. The local florist manages her flowers here. When her store downtown is closed on Sundays, she’s got a second outlet at IGA. Instead of competing with small, local merchants for their business and daily bread, we’re partnering with them.

Why did you decide to put a strong focus on health and well-being?

It’s important to me. I’m a yoga teacher, I do a lot of meditation; it’s a way of life. I’m an epicurean and I love to eat. There’s a medicinal aspect to food.

Do you have other changes coming?

Sobeys is the only banner that offers e-commerce on, but we had not been making use of it. So I bought a little van and hired someone who will go to the school boards, the Caisse populaire, the banks [and say], ‘You don’t have any time? In two clicks your order can be done.’ He’ll assemble the orders and deliver them. We’ll be pioneers in the field.

Why did you create a kids’ area?

I saw customers with kids who are in a rush to do their shopping because the children want this, they want that, they’re aggressive. We decided to eliminate that. So in the children’s corner there are two girls or boys, age 14 or 15, who’ve taken courses in daycare. We call them the youth squad. The kids’ zone is open on Saturdays and Sundays and the parents like it so much: ‘I can do my grocery shopping peacefully.’ It’s not daycare, it’s active. The kids draw things about food, they’re taken to the fruit and vegetables department and told to choose a fruit they’re not familiar with and they’re told about it and where it’s from. These kids are our future customers and we’re teaching them the basics. What’s more, the 14-year-olds are my future employees.