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ROGER TAYLOR: Sobeys expands curbside pickup to Halifax area

Empire Co. Ltd. is expanding its e-commerce offering with the launch of Voilà by Sobeys curbside pickup at three locations in Nova Scotia. A sign at the driveway of the Sobeys on Wyse Road in Dartmouth points the way for shoppers.
Empire Co. Ltd. is expanding its e-commerce offering with the launch of Voilà by Sobeys curbside pickup at three locations in Nova Scotia. A sign at the driveway of the Sobeys on Wyse Road in Dartmouth points the way for shoppers. - SaltWire Network

Sobeys Inc. is betting superior e-commerce tools will allow it to make up ground on grocery competitors who have been faster out of the online gate.

The Sobeys grocery chain, a wholly owned subsidiary of Stellarton-based Empire Co. Ltd., announced Tuesday that it is expanding its e-commerce store-pick offering in Nova Scotia, powered by British online retail technology company Ocado Group PLC’s know-how.

Voilà by Sobeys curbside pickup was introduced by the company at its Aberdeen Shopping Centre store in New Glasgow earlier in the summer.

Jedd Wood, Sobeys’ vice-president of Atlantic operations, says it made sense to start the program in Pictou County, where the company was founded and continues to be based.

Jedd Wood, Sobeys' vice-president of Atlantic operations. - SaltWire Network
Jedd Wood, Sobeys' vice-president of Atlantic operations. - SaltWire Network

The concentration of Empire and Sobeys employees living in that part of the province allowed Sobeys to use staff to test out the new store-pick offering before rolling it out to other stores in the region, Wood said during a phone interview Tuesday.

It also made sense, he said, to expand the service to the Halifax area, the largest population centre in the Atlantic region. On Tuesday, Sobeys added the Voilà program to its stores on Herring Cove Road in Spryfield and on Wyse Road in Dartmouth.

Customers can order at voila.ca or by downloading the Voilà mobile app. Orders are assembled by Voilà by Sobeys “teammates” using handheld devices. They are trained to be accurate and, above all, safely pick grocery orders based on freshness. Customers select a one-hour window for contactless curbside pickup.

Just like its competitor Loblaw, which is using California-based Instacart to provide the technology for its in-store picking service, the e-commerce orders at participating Sobeys stores are delivered to customers' vehicles for a contactless shopping experience.

Sobeys employees working in its curbside pickup program wear face masks when assembling and delivering orders, and are required to follow physical distancing guidelines. All orders are placed into customers' vehicles by workers.

Loblaw has been offering contactless home delivery for the last couple of years. However, Wood says, the home delivery option isn’t in the cards for Sobeys at the moment in the Atlantic region.

Sobeys says its new pick-up service offers a freshness guarantee and products at affordable prices with no hidden fees.

Wood said Sobeys has been carefully planning the rollout of its program but acknowledged the pandemic may have sped up introduction of the service.

Sobeys already has a major automated customer fulfillment centre, powered by Ocado technology, in the Toronto area and is building another in the Montreal area. Two more purpose-built fulfillment centres are planned for larger population centres in Western Canada.

The plan is for Sobeys to cover about 75 per cent of the Canadian population from the customer fulfillment centres and the rest of the country will be served by in-store fulfilment technology.

Sobeys’ plan is to expand Voilà curbside pickup to hundreds of stores across Canada over the next few years as part of the company’s Project Horizon strategy.

Sobeys’ parent company, Empire Co., held a virtual annual meeting last week. Empire’s key businesses are food retailing and related real estate, with about $27.2 billion in annual sales and $14.8 billion in assets.

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