John Douang, Co-Founder & CEO of the company which opened its first location in Toronto in 2016, said the hyperlocal, unmanned market is in nine locations currently in Ontario and Quebec and about 30 stores are in the queue in either lease discussions and construction including in British Columbia.
“We utilize a lot of technology to supplement the store operations and we use a lot of our own platform of technology in order to secure the stores. All the stores are unmanned. We don’t have cashiers and we don’t have staff that are on site to greet customers or anything like that,” said Douang.
“The stores are 24/7, 365 days a year and the way it works is that all of our customers download our mobile app. They create their account and then they get access to the stores.”
Douang said there are two sizes for the stores. The first is the resident format which is typically inside the common area of a building. It’s about 350 to 600 square feet. The second is the community format which can go into a standard commercial space and those typically range from 1,000 square feet plus.
“We are more so a market rather than a convenience store because we don’t sell age-restricted products . . . We carry a wide range of grocery products. We’re like a mini market where you can find fresh prepared foods like sandwiches, soups, salads. A wide variety of frozen type goods. Your typical pantry type items. So canned goods, confectionary items like snacks and drinks as well. Mostly around grocery products. We do carry things like electronic accessories like cables and chargers and home goods like cleaning products and personal hygiene products,” he said.
“Our strategy for our store growth has been around placing our stores into residential communities. So we’re working with a lot of major national and international property developers to spec out space within their master planned communities – mostly around densely populated areas. We like to be in communities that have a dense population, usually by way of condominiums and apartment buildings . . . Our strategy has always been bringing the convenience to the customer so they don’t have to travel far to get some items.”
The company started franchising in 2020 and is supported by major investor and advisor, the newest Dragon on CBC’s Dragons Den – Wes Hall.
“I quite honestly feel that Canada can support literally thousands of Aisle 24 stores. When you look at the market as a whole, right now in Canada there’s about over 27,000 convenience stores and over 65 per cent of those are independently owned,” explained Douang. “We feel there’s a big gap in the market and that we can help to consolidate the market and bring a more consistent experience to the consumer.”
In September 2016, in partnership with Knightstone Capital and Centennial College, Aisle 24 launched Canada’s first cashierless grocery store at Centennial Place student residence, tailored to the specific purchasing habits of their community.
“COVID has changed a lot of things. I think even pre-COVID we were on the right trends – what the younger generation, the Gen Z’s, the Millennials, what they want because those people in those age categories are not shopping for the whole week. They’re doing two to three shopping sessions per week and they’re shopping for today and they’re shopping for tomorrow,” said Douang.
“Along those lines, people don’t want to have to deal with grocery shopping in a mega store. It’s almost become a burden now. They want to get in, they want to get out. Shopping is a necessity but it’s not enjoyable and they want to get on with their lives and that’s what we’re about. Our main motto is saving you time so you can focus on what is really important.
“Pre COVID we were already seeing a lot of interest and a lot of growth in our sector. COVID hit and I think it’s even more important now that our customers feel safer shopping closer to home where they have less risk and less exposure to potentially COVID. Their shopping behaviours are changing. They’re shopping more local. They are enjoying the touchless aspect of the business. They don’t need to speak with anybody in the store. They can go in, get what they need and leave in a few minutes.”
The Aisle 24 process is simple. People download the mobile app, register an account and can get access right away. The mobile app also delivers special promotions and customer surveys. Customers use the app to unlock the door and start browsing. Every store includes enhanced security systems to discourage theft and reconciles inventory each week to closely track shrinkage.
Residents use the self-service kiosk to scan the products they want to purchase. Products are neatly displayed on open shelves and grocery freezers. If shoppers can’t find something, they can make requests via the kiosk for specific dietary requirements or preferences.
When it comes to paying, the only thing shoppers need is their smartphone, payment card, and a bag to carry their groceries.
The Aisle 24 store is serviced at least three times a week to clean, replenish shelves and check inventory.