In the race for grocery e-commerce success, how does new kid on the block Voila by Sobeys stack up? In late June 2020 Michael Medline, president and CEO of Sobeys, said, “Voila by Sobeys is the future of online grocery retail in Canada, and now it’s here.” He was right: not only is Voila here, it actually might be the best grocery e-commerce solution Canada has to offer.
Conceived in 2017, Sobeys joined the Canadian grocery e-commerce race through an exclusive partnership with U.K.-based Ocado, which has deployed solutions for notable retailers such as Casino, ICA, Kohl’s, Marks & Spencer, Morrisons, Aeon and, soon, Kroger. Core to Ocado is its robotic technology configured in an automated customer fulfillment center (CFC) that can process a 50-item order in less than five minutes. That’s 45-50 minutes faster than a similar-sized order picked by a shopper in a grocery store.
Sobeys broke ground in 2019 on its first CFC in Vaughan, Ontario, at a cost of $96 million. The whopping 396,000-square-foot facility will employ about 1,500 workers and permit Sobeys to offer up to 39,000 products—more than twice the amount of a conventional grocery store. Its second CFC, scheduled to open in 2021, is currently under construction in Montreal’s West-Island. Calgary and Vancouver will follow, and the combination of all four centers will enable Sobeys to service 75% of all Canadians.
Sobeys’ solution differs from that of other Canadian grocery retailers in many aspects. For example, Loblaws has built an operating model integrated across click-and-collect, microfulfillment centers (MFC) 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, which owns and operates Grocery Gateway, historically relied on a distribution center/delivery model but recently added click-and-collect to cope with the increase in demand.
Selecting the correct operating model is paramount to the success and profitability of a grocery e-commerce program, but so is the customer experience. Shoppers aren’t preoccupied with the machinations of the behind-the-scenes aspects of grocery e-commerce. Instead, they have basic expectations: easy to use, accurate, reasonably priced, fresh produce and timely delivery.
How does Voila stack-up in these and other criteria? Let’s take a look.
1. Account Creation
Creating an account is simple as long as you remember to visit voila.ca and not sobeys.com as the e-commerce experience isn’t unified.
2. Delivery Timeslots
You can book your delivery timeslot before you begin building your basket—a great feature giving visibility to consumers and limiting disappointment 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, though some work is 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 favorites on the home page. This feature makes building a basket that much quicker. Also, past purchase items are available in the Order History.
5. Product Data and Images
Product data and images are generally complete, but nutritional information is missing on many products. The layout of product details is clunky, but that could quickly be addressed in a front-end formatting update.
Although coupons and the weekly flyers aren’t integrated into the experience, I can see all the items on sale using the browse feature. This is a great way to focus on the basket and drive conversion online. The shopping list feature is absent. That’s a good thing, since less than 2% of consumers who regularly visit a grocery retailer website use this feature.
Online pricing is on par with in-store pricing. That means no surprises and easier budgeting for the consumer.
8. Basket Building and Checkout
Building a basket was speedy and efficient, with 21 items added in under six minutes. The checkout process was equally painless. Voila also displays a page of items you purchased in the past to make it easier to restock those products.
9. Delivery Experience
The delivery experience is superior to the majority of other solutions I’ve used. The drivers are courteous, punctual and follow COVID-19 health guidelines. On one hot delivery day, they tested the temperature of the meat products in my order to make sure they met the Sobeys quality guidelines.
So far, personalization is subtle and predominately uses past purchases to manipulate content.
Sobeys has gone all out in defining what the customer experience will be and will be rewarded with returning customers. By owning the customer experience end-to-end and having the freedom to experiment, I predict Sobeys will quickly capture a leading share of e-commerce sales in major metropolitan markets in Canada.
Sylvain Perrier is president and CEO of Mercatus.