He’s got style: Alain Gagné has built a grocery store like no other

Alain Gagné's new IGA store in Quebec City is simply stunning. Here's an insider's look.

Alain Gagné laughs when he thinks about how reluctant he was when he first started working in his father’s small grocery store and butcher shop, just outside Quebec City, at age 12. “I didn’t really like it,” he recalls. “I wanted to be outside playing with my friends.”

Thirty-three years later, Gagné still puts a premium on leisure time. But as the owner of four IGA stores in the Quebec City region–including a year-old flagship store that’s turning heads for its unique design–he now has fun finding ways to make grocery shopping an enjoyable experience.

The facade of Alain Gagné’s IGA des Sources in Cap Rouge, QC, makes a striking first impression. Retail expert Jim Leishman thought the store was a museum the first time he saw it

“This is a great business to be in,” he says. “I love what I do.” That passion is on public display most days from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at IGA des Sources, a $15-million merchandising marvel that Gagné built in Cap Rouge, an upscale suburb just west of the provincial capital. Officially opened in November 2009 with a 1,000-person party that included a show by Cirque de Soleil, the 43,000-square-foot store’s artistic design and unorthodox layout give customers and competitors alike much food for thought.

Located opposite an on-ramp to a busy provincial highway–Autoroute 40–the store’s stylish facade of natural grey stone and light-stained pine wood were designed to blend in with the surrounding forest. Tall entrance pillars and three woodcovered canopies that extend like fingers into the parking lot add a rustic yet regal touch. They also provide cart-pushing shoppers with some brief but welcome relief from the elements in a northern region famous for cold weather.

“The store’s imposing architecture creates an immediate impression from the moment you pull into the parking lot,” notes Jim Leishman. A retired Coca-Cola vice-president who spent 34 years visiting food stores across Canada, Leishman now owns the Lion’s Gate Group, a company that evaluates stores from the shopper’s viewpoint to help retailers improve their bottom line. He recalls the first time he drove up to Gagné’s store and mistook it for a new museum. It’s a great example of the exceptional entrepreneurship of independent grocers, says John Scott, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers.

Paths to purchase

That uniqueness, however, isn’t limited to the outside–not by a long shot. When shoppers pass through the sliding glass front doors, they enter a distinct grocery environment of Gagné’s making, from the presentation and placement of food and drinks to the abstract art that hangs on the walls and from the ceilings. “My dream was to create a warm and comfortable atmosphere,” Gagné explains while giving me a tour of his store. “But I also wanted it to be practical and profitable [and] continue to be stylish 10 or 15 years down the road.”

Lit by natural light from large windows and skylights, and artificial light from a series of custom-made, art deco light fixtures that change radically in style and design in each department of the store, the high-ceilinged wood, steel and glass interior offers shoppers three directional options as they enter the store. The most intriguing path shoppers can take is the long, wide alley that runs from the entrance straight through the centre of the store to the dairy section and past the grocery aisles. “The idea is to allow people who are in a hurry and who only want a few basic items to get in and out fast,” says Gagné.

Gagné likes getting hands-on in the meat section. Like his father, he’s a butcher by trade and enjoys serving customers across the 40-foot meat-and-deli counter 

Notably, he configured the grocery aisles to face the wide alley. As a result, they run in an east-west direction to the wide alley’s north-south course. Why such a radical departure from the tried-and-true grocery format? First, it’s more convenient for shoppers who want to start their shopping trip in the grocery aisles. Second, and perhaps more importantly, each grocery aisle spills directly into the sights and smells of the fresh food departments. Shoppers “only have to cross the centre alley to go and get fresh food items, which are usually higher priced,” says Gagné. “[It] has increased our sales by 10% per transaction.”

Shoppers with more time on their hands usually turn right when they enter Gagné’s store and immediately find themselves in the produce section. A wide and inviting area that offers a clean and colourful array of the best local and imported fruit and vegetables, the section notably features a dark-coloured, pure vinyl floor. It adds both a natural look to the section and has the maintenance-free advantage of not needing to be waxed.

In Ikea floor-plan fashion, produce flows seamlessly into the meat section. “This is my favourite area,” says Gagné with a proud grin. No wonder. A butcher by trade, like his father, and a friendly, hyperactive character, friends say Gagné likes nothing better than to swap his Armani suits for a white apron and help the two dozen butchers process meat in the glass-encased cooler or to serve customers at the massive curved, 40-foot-long meat and deli counter. Suspended over the meat counter is an equally long false ceiling that vaguely resembles a red horseshoe. 

Like the many 10-by-10-foot abstract paintings throughout the store and the environmentally friendly Ecoresin translucent panels used to make sculptured lights and waves on the walls of the “fish market,” the horseshoe is indicative of the ideas Gagné had in mind five years ago when he started working with Jean-François Bessette and Celyne Lavigne.

They’re the husband-and-wife owners of EMA Design, a Montreal company that has built distinctive environments for around five hundred food stores across Quebec. “Alain was looking for a boutique expression in a big store,” says Lavigne. “We wanted to change the atmosphere whenever people turned a corner, from vegetables to meat to cheese to fish. It flows from one service to the other, yet each is different and distinct.”

That is also the case when shoppers turn left at the entrance of IGA des Sources. They can either head to the sweet-smelling bakery, the lottery-ticket kiosk or to enjoy a coffee and read a paper at the stylish wooden coffee counter, which has a wavelike design and features a dozen steel-andleather swivel chairs. “They are filled every Saturday morning with men waiting while their wives do the shopping,” notes Gagné.

Just past and to the right of the coffee counter, and behind the bakery, is the organic food section. Like the grocery aisles next to it, the organic section’s aisles are perpendicular to the entryway. Both sections, however, point to an end at the checkout counters, which are distinct–like the organic food section–for the jumble of fluorescent lights overhead.

For Lavigne, the store’s unique design, the many individual touches and its overall “open to nature” concept–all of them gleaned and developed from dozens of brainstorming sessions, roughly 20 draft floor plans and one memorable three-day visit to New York City and Pennsylvania during which she, her husband and Gagné visited more than a dozen grocery stores–make it a one-off original. “The store can’t be catalogued,” says Lavigne. “It is an architectural and design statement, circa 2010.”

Compared to the work she and her husband have done for Gagné on his three other IGA outlets–all of them similar-sized facilities across the Quebec City area–she says the des Sources store “was far more challenging and fun. It was a very special project for a very special owner.” 

From sports to supermarkets

To be sure, Gagné has brought a unique style and approach to ownership in an industry that is already full of dynamic and original entrepreneurs. “Alain has always excelled at everything–except school,” quips Daniel Morin, a close friend of Gagné’s since childhood. According to Morin, Gagné was a gifted athlete who never showed much interest in anything other than sports–until one day, at age 17, when he told Morin he was leaving for a butcher’s trade school in Montreal. “When he came home he was absolutely passionate about it,” recalls Morin. “I’d never seen him so excited.”

Together with his parents–Émilien and Lorraine, whom Morin credits with giving Gagné his flair for business, Gagné ran the family’s store near the Montmorency Falls in Boischatel (under the Marché Aimé banner) until it was destroyed by a fire in 1986. After working as a butcher in a few big stores in the area, Gagné and his father opened a new store on the opposite end of Quebec City in the fast-developing suburb of Cap Rouge.

Business boomed and in the early 1990s they were approached to join IGA. Since his father was nearing retirement, it was Alain who became the sole owner of the new store that opened in a nearby mall, under the IGA banner, in 1995. The success of that store enabled him to purchase a second store nearby, in 2001, a third store (an IGA Extra), in 2003, and a fourth, in 2006. Last year, he relocated the original store into his new IGA des Sources outlet. It employs some 300 of his 1,000 employees and generates a sizable chunk of the $150 million he earns in annual sales.

According to Leishman, the new store hits all the right retail chords. “When I look at any store, I look at three things: people and staff, bricks and mortar, and product selection in regards to pricing and merchandising,” says Leishman, who is chief juror of the Canadian Independent Grocer of the Year Awards, for which Gagné’s store will be eligible in 2011. “I would give that store very high marks on all three counts.”

That is music to Gagné’s ears. “I’m glad so many people like it,” he says. “I really wanted to make a statement [and] create something good for shoppers that will stay in style for a long time–and it looks like I hit the bull’s eye.” With plans in the works to build another stylish new store in Gagné’s hometown of Boischatel, he hopes to get his three teenage sons–Guillaume, 19, Anthony, 17, and Vincent, 16 interested in the family business. “It’s my dream,” he says. “But I won’t push them. My parents didn’t push me and look what happened.”


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