Empire’s Michael Medline Discusses the Future of Grocery Retail Amid Second Wave [Interview]

Date:

Share post:

The head of one of Canada’s biggest grocery chains says the company in the Canadian food supply chain is ready today for a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We haven’t loosened our protocols. They’re as strong now as they ever were. We’re ready,” said Michael Medline, President & CEO of the Empire Company and Sobeys Inc., who recently spoke at the Empire Club of Canada event titled Managing through Crisis and Building a Winning Culture.

headshot of Michael Medline
MICHAEL MEDLINE. PHOTO: LINKEDIN

“Our real worry now to quote Game of Thrones is that winter is coming. Winter is coming. It could be very bad. We have to keep people safe and we have to be able to allow them to come in and get the food.

SOBEYS INNOVATING IN THE FACE OF CANADIAN WINTERS AND COVID-19

“We are looking at innovations in our stores. It’s going to be cold. We don’t want people lining up outside but we want it safe. We’re going to do some structural changes to our vestibules to allow that. We’re going to put in structures so people are protected from the elements where they need to be. We are now about to pilot some innovative technology for queuing that if it’s cold out or it’s snowing out or it’s sleeting out, we’ll let you know. You can sit in your car, stay warm, stay out of the elements and we’ll let you know when you can come in. At certain locations we’re going to be able to do that. So we’re always innovating and getting ready and we’re also ready in terms of supply chain.”

Medline said the initial stages of the pandemic back in March was a “blur”.

“We were moving as quickly as we could and the only way to get through this was to get back to basics . . . a few key priorities. We distilled down to three priorities – keep the stores open and keep those shelves stocked, keep our teammates and customers safe, and give back to the communities in terms of philanthropy,” said Medline. “That’s what we did during that period of time and we stayed true to our values throughout that time. And that’s how you have to act.

“Our team, including me, we worked around the clock from wherever we were. And the team did a great job. We just had such a duty. We don’t necessarily think of ourselves as essential services. For a number of months there we were an essential service. We had to keep people safe and we had to keep them fed. And we didn’t know where this was going. It was a very, very scary time and indeed unprecedented.”

COVID-19 HAS PROVEN THE STRENGTH OF CANADIAN FOOD SUPPLY CHAIN

Medline said the pandemic experience, especially in its early stages, proved that the Canadian food supply chain is strong.

“I’m not going to sugar coat it. I like to be transparent. It was hanging by a thread back in March and April. We were being asked to run our stores, run our supply chains at a level we didn’t actually think was possible. Our great supplier partners throughout the country were doing things they never thought were possible and the people who supply had to do that too,” he said. “It was hanging by a thread. We made it through because we worked together, because we innovated, and we partnered across the country. Everyone was helping each other. We were in constant communication with our supplier partners.”

Medline was quite blunt referring to reports that competitors have been or want to impose fees on suppliers.

“This is the worst relationship I’ve ever seen in my couple of decades in retail. Some of the practices that have been in the news right now are for me hard to believe and repugnant actually,” he said. “And taken to the extreme, some of these behaviours are just plain bad for Canada and that’s our view at Empire. They’re bad for the consumer goods companies and for clear reasons they feel bullied, it doesn’t seem fair. That in turn hurts our farmers that we have to take care of.

“It’s not good for small mom and pop food retailers. How can they compete with that? It’s terrible for consumers when things like this happen because the fear is it’s going to raise prices for consumers which we’ve been resisting with all our might. It’s even unfair, don’t cry for us, but it’s even unfair to large grocers like us who try to play by the rules, who try to play fairly, and want a good food supply chain.”

WHILE ECOMMERCE GROWS, IT REMAINS A SMALL % OF GROCERY SALES

Medline said people will continue in the future to visit brick and mortar stores. While ecommerce has grown, and more so through the pandemic, it still remains overall a small percentage of sales for grocery stores.

“The foreseeable future most grocery will be in bricks and mortar. Ecommerce will be sexy. It will be the highest growth but bricks and mortar will be what funds all this ecommerce growth and it will be the heart of how people shop for a long time,” said Medline.

“(Ecommerce) will continue to accelerate far faster than any other part of the business.”

Medline said he believes that if companies don’t innovate they will die.

“I’m a huge fan of innovation. We have all sorts of plans I’m not going to make public today. To be honest though, looking back five years ago, I’m disappointed in how little and surprised at how little progress retail has made in terms of innovation over a five-year period where I thought, and many thought, it would explode,” he said.

1 COMMENT

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

More From Retail Insider

Toronto’s CF Sherway Gardens Hits Sales Milestone with Exciting Retail Growth and Future Plans [Interview]

The shopping centre is adding new retailers as sales per square foot hit an all-time high, with plans to re-tenant Nordstorm as foot traffic grows following Eataly's opening in the mall a few months ago.

ECS Coffee Opens Canada’s Largest Coffee and Espresso Equipment Gear Showroom and Retail Space in Toronto [Interview]

The new Etobicoke location is unique to Canada if not North America, according to its founder, with coffee roasting, equipment showroom, over 500 varieties of coffee, Youtube studio and various in-store experiences. He has plans to expand the concept nationally.

New Loblaws City Market Opens in Vancouver’s ‘The Post’ Building, Adding Grocery Competition to the Downtown Core [Podcast]

Craig and Lee discuss the opening of a new Loblaws City Market in downtown Vancouver's renovated Post building, and they explore its potential impact on local grocery shopping.

Loblaw Announces $2 Billion Investment in Canada for 2024 with Dozens of New Stores and 7,500 New Jobs [Expert Comment]

The retail behemoth will be growing substantially this year, following backlash over profits as inflation continues to impact Canadians.

Dubai-Based Asian Street Food Concept ‘Wok Boyz’ Expands into Canada with Plans for Multiple Locations [Interview]

The company's founder says the popular concept, with personalized meals, has an opportunity to grow substantially with its high-quality ingredients and theatrical flare, complete with fiery customer-facing woks.

Calgary Surge Basketball Team Launches Innovative Pop-Up at CF Chinook Centre to Boost Community Engagement [Interview]

The retail activation, which opened this month, is resulting in heavier foot traffic in a quieter part of the mall.

Upscale Pusateri’s Fine Foods to Close Yorkville Grocery Store in Toronto After 20 Years

The 5,500 square foot store opened to much fanfare in 2003, with valet parking, private chefs and pricey goods. 

Loblaw and Walmart Could be Forced to Adhere to Grocery Code of Conduct with Legislation [Op-Ed]

Sylvain Charlebois says that it's rare for all of Canada's political parties to agree, signalling a shift that could force grocers to comply amid record inflation.

Factory Direct to Shut All 14 Stores Amid Bankruptcy, Liquidation to Begin Saturday

The company, founded in 1995, is one of Canada’s largest privately owned discount retailers which struggled with declining sales and increasing costs following the pandemic.

What to Expect for the Canadian Retail and Hospitality Sectors in 2024 [Video Interview]

Michael Kehoe provides an expansive overview of what's expected for Canada's retail industry in 2024, and how the commercial real estate industry is becoming more dynamic than ever.

Anatomy of a Leader: David Lui, CEO of Kit and Ace and Co-Founder of Unity Brands

Lui has an extensive background in retail with over 30 years of experience and is known for his award-winning brand transformations, e-commerce and digital knowledge along with his passion for scaling businesses.

Robotic Retail Gaining Traction in Canada, But Some Consumers are Being Left Behind [Op-Ed]

Automated retailers without in-store staff are opening across Canada, such as Aisle 24, RC Coffee and PizzaForno -- but consumers without smart phones, credit cards, or with vision issues may not be able to access these retailers says a researcher.

Oakridge Park Announces 1st Luxury Retailers, Attracting Top Brands to Vancouver [Podcast]

Craig and Lee discuss the latest Oakridge Park announcement, highlighting the addition of luxury and upper contemporary brands to Vancouver's retail landscape and how it will impact downtown.

Interview on What it Takes: Lee Valley Tools Named Top Retailer in Ontario for Customer Service

The company's COO Jason Tasse discusses the retailer's secret sauce for having an engaged workforce, while also discussing plans to expand with more stores and retail concepts.

Survey Data Shows Canadians will Prioritize Romance Over Budget Cuts This Valentine’s Day [Interviews]

David Litwin of Moneris notes that Valentine's is an interesting bellwether for what businesses might expect from consumers for the rest of the year.

Anine Bing to Open 2nd Canadian Storefront at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto 

The US-based women’s fashion brand recently opened its first Canadian store at Yorkdale, and will open its second location in a downtown luxury hotel. 

Retail Burnout Crisis in Canada: The Call for Empathetic Leadership and Proactive Solutions Amid Operational Strains [Feature]

It's never been more difficult to work in retail, with store managers burning out amid lower staffing numbers, increased task and store robberies. Two industry experts discuss the situation.

Leon’s Furniture to Develop 40-Acre Site in Toronto with Flagship Store, HQ and Thousands of Units of Housing [Interview]

The company is expanding in Canada as it looks to open new stores, while also establishing a REIT that will become its own entity.

Retail Insider the magazine Presents the Trends and Forcing Functions that will Shape the Future of Retail

Experts weigh in on the current and future state of the retail industry in Canada, as well as discussion on new retail entrants to Canada.

Québec’s Bill 96 Signage Laws are Bewildering for Many Retailers while Presenting Opportunities [Op-Ed]

Québec’s French-language sign rules are chaotic, yet they unearth an unforeseen opportunity for brand differentiation says Éric Blais.

RECENT RETAIL INSIDER VIDEOS

Advertisment

Subscribe to the Newsletter

Subscribe

* indicates required

RECENT articles

Toronto’s CF Sherway Gardens Hits Sales Milestone with Exciting Retail Growth and Future Plans [Interview]

The shopping centre is adding new retailers as sales per square foot hit an all-time high, with plans to re-tenant Nordstorm as foot traffic grows following Eataly's opening in the mall a few months ago.

ECS Coffee Opens Canada’s Largest Coffee and Espresso Equipment Gear Showroom and Retail Space in Toronto [Interview]

The new Etobicoke location is unique to Canada if not North America, according to its founder, with coffee roasting, equipment showroom, over 500 varieties of coffee, Youtube studio and various in-store experiences. He has plans to expand the concept nationally.

New Loblaws City Market Opens in Vancouver’s ‘The Post’ Building, Adding Grocery Competition to the Downtown Core [Podcast]

Craig and Lee discuss the opening of a new Loblaws City Market in downtown Vancouver's renovated Post building, and they explore its potential impact on local grocery shopping.

Loblaw Announces $2 Billion Investment in Canada for 2024 with Dozens of New Stores and 7,500 New Jobs [Expert Comment]

The retail behemoth will be growing substantially this year, following backlash over profits as inflation continues to impact Canadians.

Dubai-Based Asian Street Food Concept ‘Wok Boyz’ Expands into Canada with Plans for Multiple Locations [Interview]

The company's founder says the popular concept, with personalized meals, has an opportunity to grow substantially with its high-quality ingredients and theatrical flare, complete with fiery customer-facing woks.

Calgary Surge Basketball Team Launches Innovative Pop-Up at CF Chinook Centre to Boost Community Engagement [Interview]

The retail activation, which opened this month, is resulting in heavier foot traffic in a quieter part of the mall.

Upscale Pusateri’s Fine Foods to Close Yorkville Grocery Store in Toronto After 20 Years

The 5,500 square foot store opened to much fanfare in 2003, with valet parking, private chefs and pricey goods. 

Loblaw and Walmart Could be Forced to Adhere to Grocery Code of Conduct with Legislation [Op-Ed]

Sylvain Charlebois says that it's rare for all of Canada's political parties to agree, signalling a shift that could force grocers to comply amid record inflation.

Factory Direct to Shut All 14 Stores Amid Bankruptcy, Liquidation to Begin Saturday

The company, founded in 1995, is one of Canada’s largest privately owned discount retailers which struggled with declining sales and increasing costs following the pandemic.

What to Expect for the Canadian Retail and Hospitality Sectors in 2024 [Video Interview]

Michael Kehoe provides an expansive overview of what's expected for Canada's retail industry in 2024, and how the commercial real estate industry is becoming more dynamic than ever.

Anatomy of a Leader: David Lui, CEO of Kit and Ace and Co-Founder of Unity Brands

Lui has an extensive background in retail with over 30 years of experience and is known for his award-winning brand transformations, e-commerce and digital knowledge along with his passion for scaling businesses.

Robotic Retail Gaining Traction in Canada, But Some Consumers are Being Left Behind [Op-Ed]

Automated retailers without in-store staff are opening across Canada, such as Aisle 24, RC Coffee and PizzaForno -- but consumers without smart phones, credit cards, or with vision issues may not be able to access these retailers says a researcher.

Oakridge Park Announces 1st Luxury Retailers, Attracting Top Brands to Vancouver [Podcast]

Craig and Lee discuss the latest Oakridge Park announcement, highlighting the addition of luxury and upper contemporary brands to Vancouver's retail landscape and how it will impact downtown.

Interview on What it Takes: Lee Valley Tools Named Top Retailer in Ontario for Customer Service

The company's COO Jason Tasse discusses the retailer's secret sauce for having an engaged workforce, while also discussing plans to expand with more stores and retail concepts.

Survey Data Shows Canadians will Prioritize Romance Over Budget Cuts This Valentine’s Day [Interviews]

David Litwin of Moneris notes that Valentine's is an interesting bellwether for what businesses might expect from consumers for the rest of the year.

Anine Bing to Open 2nd Canadian Storefront at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto 

The US-based women’s fashion brand recently opened its first Canadian store at Yorkdale, and will open its second location in a downtown luxury hotel. 

Retail Burnout Crisis in Canada: The Call for Empathetic Leadership and Proactive Solutions Amid Operational Strains [Feature]

It's never been more difficult to work in retail, with store managers burning out amid lower staffing numbers, increased task and store robberies. Two industry experts discuss the situation.

Leon’s Furniture to Develop 40-Acre Site in Toronto with Flagship Store, HQ and Thousands of Units of Housing [Interview]

The company is expanding in Canada as it looks to open new stores, while also establishing a REIT that will become its own entity.

Retail Insider the magazine Presents the Trends and Forcing Functions that will Shape the Future of Retail

Experts weigh in on the current and future state of the retail industry in Canada, as well as discussion on new retail entrants to Canada.

Québec’s Bill 96 Signage Laws are Bewildering for Many Retailers while Presenting Opportunities [Op-Ed]

Québec’s French-language sign rules are chaotic, yet they unearth an unforeseen opportunity for brand differentiation says Éric Blais.