In late June 2020, when the president and CEO of Sobeys, Michael Medline, said, "Voilà by Sobeys is the future of online grocery retail in Canada, and now it's here." He was right; not only is Voilà here; it actually might be the best grocery eCommerce solution Canada has to offer.
Conceived in 2017, as part of "Project Sunrise," Sobeys dared to join the Canadian grocery eCommerce race, through an exclusive partnership with U.K. based eCommerce company Ocado. An organization that has deployed like solutions for such notable retailers as Casino, ICA, Kohls, Marks & Spencer and Morrisons, Aeon, and soon to be, Kroger. Core to Ocado is its robotic technology configured in an automated CFC (Customer Fulfillment Center) that can process a 50-item order in less than five minutes. 45-50 minutes faster compared to a similar-sized order picked by a shopper in a grocery store.
Sobeys broke ground in 2019, on its first $96 million, CFC in Vaughan, Ontario. Coming in at a whopping 396,000 square feet, the facility will employ roughly 1,500 workers and permit Sobeys to offer up to 39,000 products - more than double compared to a conventional grocery store. Its second CFC, scheduled to open in 2021, is currently under construction in Montréal's West-Island and will permit the retailer to service households in parts of the province of Québec and the national capital region. Both Calgary and Vancouver are next, and the combination of all four centers will enable Sobeys to service 75% of all Canadians.
Looking back, Medline's decision to jump into grocery eCommerce was well-timed. Initial testing of Voilà began in April of this year during a near lockdown situation, causing Sobeys to accelerate its deployment plan across the greater Toronto area. The pandemic has benefited the retail food industry, grocery eCommerce sales have skyrocketed, reaching levels forecasted years out. According to research published by Brick Meets Click/Mercatus, U.S. grocery eCommerce sales for June, reached $7.2B up from $4.0B in March.
Compared to others, Sobeys implemented solution differs in many aspects. For example, Loblaw has built an integrated operating model across Click & Collect, MFC (Micro Fulfillment Center), and delivery. It is spreading its risk to meet consumer preferences and demand without committing to any single operating model. On the other hand, Longo's, Grocery Gateway owner and operator, who historically relied on a distribution center/delivery model, recently turned on Click & Collect to cope with the increase in demand. But for the time being, Sobeys is going all-in with its multiple fulfillment centers and Ocado with the hopes of capturing the lion share of the Canadian grocery basket and achieving a positive return on its sizable investment.
Selecting the correct operating model is paramount to the success and profitability of a grocery eCommerce Program but doesn't negate the customer experience. In a recent LinkedIn article authored by Narayan Iyengar, SVP Digital & eCommerce for Albertsons, Narayan says: "customers will expect a unified interface." Customers aren't preoccupied with the machinations of the behind the scenes aspects of grocery eCommerce. For the most part, they have basic expectations, easy to use, accurate, reasonably priced, fresh produce, and timely delivery.
Being the new kid on the block, how does Voilà stack-up? Let's take a look.
Creating an account is simple as long as you remember to visit voila.ca and not sobeys.com as the eCommerce experience isn't unified.
You can book your delivery timeslot before you begin building your basket— great feature giving visibility to consumers and limiting disappointment, especially if a preferred timeslot isn't available at the end of the checkout process. The service fee is $7.99, with a minimum spend of $50.
Search is relatively easy to use, with some work required on misspells and synonyms. I searched for "Old Spice," and most of my results were "Old El Paso."
After using the service multiple times, items ordered in the past are loaded as favourites on the homage page. This feature makes building a basket that much quicker. Also, past purchase items are available in the order history.
Product Data and Images
Product data and images are generally healthy, but nutritional information is missing on multiple products. The layout of product details is clunky, but that can quickly be addressed.
Although coupons and the weekly flyers aren't integrated into the experience, I can see all the items on sale using the browse feature. The shopping is absent, and that's a good thing. Less than 2% of consumers who regularly visit a grocery retailer website use the shopping list feature. It's a great way to focus on the basket and create conversion.
Online pricing is on par with in-store pricing. No surprises and makes budgeting easier for the consumer.
Speedy and efficient, 21 items in under 6 minutes.
Painless. Voilà also displays a page of items you purchased in the past if you need to rebuy them.
The delivery experience is superior to the majority of other solutions that I've experienced in the past. The drivers are courteous, punctual, and following COVID-19 health guidelines. On one hot delivery day, they tested the meat's temperature to make sure it was in the range of their guidance.
So far, personalization is subtle and predominately using past purchases to manipulate content.
Coming out of the gate, Sobeys is running strong. The real challenge will be maintaining focus with the myriad of banners and provinces wanting to leverage the new digital property. Moving forward, I encourage Medline and his team to think about the consumer first and drive towards sustainable customer-centricity.