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The Interview Issue – François Bouchard

François Bouchard has made good on a promise he made back in 1986 as the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers’ first scholarship recipient: to give back to the industry. He’s a strong advocate of young people working in grocery and leads by example, having himself bypassed a career in consumer goods. As owner of the Country Grocer in Ottawa, Bouchard leads a successful retail business and an online one as well.

Q: What are your proudest achievements to date?

Apart from owning my own store at age 23 [a Steinberg’s], it was becoming chair of CFIG in 2009. That position means recognition by your peers that they trust you, and it’s the ability to make a difference by positively giving back to the association.

Q: What types of innovation are you seeing in different regions of Canada?

If you look at the West, organics, healthy foods and superfoods are huge because of the influence of California. They’ve taken what used to be special categories and made them mainstream. In regular grocery stores in the West, 90 per cent of produce is organic. And what central Canada would consider “healthy foods” are incorporated within the stores as regular items. Ontario and Quebec are nowhere near that.

In Quebec, prepared food is at a whole new level. Food is a passion there and you can see it in the assortment of products like cheese and meat. They’ve also got behind local, providing a story of where the food comes from and who makes it. They’re also very strong on sampling and recipe programs.

Q: How has your clientele changed over the years?

My immediate market has a lot of new Canadians. Down the street from the store, we have subsidized housing, so we’ve seen the different waves of immigration during the 16 years we’ve been here.

When I bought the store, in 1995, half my clientele was Polish. That makeup changed when the war broke out in Yugoslavia. We saw an influx of Serbians, Yugoslavians and eastern European customers. Today, we have a lot of Chinese Canadian customers, because we’re really close to Carleton University, and Cuban immigrants.

Now we’re sharing our customers not only with traditional grocers, but with Shoppers Drug Mart, Canadian Tire, etc., so we have to be aware of what everybody else is doing. In a lot of cases, your customers aren’t even aware they’re no longer loyal to you because they went to Shoppers to pick up their prescription and bought two bags of milk. We have to work on upselling our customers because of that convenience aspect of being able to buy groceries anywhere, any time.

Q: How has your online business evolved since it was established, in 1997?

We were the third in Canada and the first in Ottawa to sell online groceries. I believe the demographics are right, as baby boomers age and become computer savvy and want to maintain their independence and stay at home. This service allows that. You’re seeing a lot of development in northern communities and people moving up there. They’ll be looking for the same products they have elsewhere in Canada, so this is where our online business is filling a need. In fact, one-third of the people who do online ordering are doing so for a business or for someone else, be it an elderly parent or university student.

Q: What are your thoughts on the use of new technologies in grocery stores?

You need to use it for efficiencies, and to be competitive. As an independent grocer, we’re flexible to try new things–from loyalty-tracking software to apps. Independents have been great at utilizing new technologies. Technology is both innovative and essential. It’ll set you apart. It’s about making the right decisions in real time.

Q: Have you made any major mistakes in your career?

Initially we were overwhelmed by the demand for our online services. We had a commissary and did a lot of prepared foods from 1995 to 1997. It was very successful and we were probably a little ahead of our time and pulled the plug on it too early. Instead of doing prepared foods ourselves, we’re partnering with others who are doing it well, such as Evan MacDonald of the Village Grocer in Unionville, Ont.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be to the industry?

The importance of getting young people involved in the industry is close to my heart. Too many people I know are unhappy with what they do, and grocery provides rewarding experiences that people aren’t fully aware of. You go into any class in high school and most students have worked in grocery as a part-time job. They don’t realize such an experience can make them management material by their early 20s. Also, I’m proud of the link I’ve built between the rest of Canada and Quebec. We’re in the same industry and can learn from each other.

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