Sobeys is the second largest grocery retailer in Canada and covers the nation from coast to coast, operating over 1,500 stores across Canada under a variety of banners. Their stores offer full-service meat and seafood departments, farm-fresh produce, in-store bakeries, prepared foods and florists.
Those floral departments and services are the primary responsibility of Maria Fernandes, National Category Manager Floral at Sobeys. With over two decades of experience, her skills with customer service and store management have her on the lookout for products and innovations that came make sense to individual departments but can also be seen and felt across every store.
As a Floriexpo Key Buyer, Maria is set to explore those options at the event, which pulls together essential contacts from across all segments of the floral industry. We caught up with her to better understand how floral departments at Sobeys are setup, what types of product she’s on the lookout for, what she’s looking forward to most about Floriexpo and much more.
Floriexpo: Given the number of stores and floral departments that you manage, I imagine you’re dealing with an incredible variety of products and arrangements. At the same time though, I imagine you want to enable a consistent look and feel that is connected to your brand. How do you balance that need to be the same but different?
Maria Fernandes: One way we balance that out is by having programs that are the same across every store, but the details associated with each program can vary based on the different needs or requirements of an individual store.
In floral, that’s something we do under two very distinct programs, which are a full-service format and a self-serve format. There’s crossover between them, but we’re focused on servicing customer needs on the self-serve side and on providing an enhanced full-service format on the other. The challenges becomes, how do we improve and get the customers to pick up that arrangement? Where do those price points need to be at to make sense for us and for the customer? Those are the baseline questions we consider at a high level, and then each program can expand and be customized to best answer those questions for a given store under distinct banners like our community banner, discount banner, etc.
Can we break that out a bit? What types of products are you looking to bring under each banner and how do you make decisions around what to bring into them?
If you’re looking at our cut category, like the bouquets for example, we like to stick to the four price points. That starts under our discount banner at a lower retail price and then we go up from there. Then I would look at it and decide how we should separate our banners and make each one of them unique, because each customer base is a little different in their own aspects.
One of our programs that we call, “mix and match” is where you can buy three bunches for $21.00. This program is available on all banners except for our Thrifty banner, which carries a different price point. But the selection on that varies, so on the self-serve side, there just isn’t as much available. On the full service side, we expand the lineup quite extensively, and they have the autonomy to bring in what they need and require. It also gives the store that flexibility to really target their customer base.
So you are actively considering that individual customer base for many of these decisions?
Absolutely. If it’s a high-end demographic, where they have customers that will spend more, they’ll hit the cuts that are a higher perceived value, like your Calla Lilies, or your Lilies, or your Hydrangeas. If it’s a store that is in a market where it’s not as high-end, we’ll bring in more affordable products. The store really has the autonomy to hit their customer base and to really pinpoint their demographics. We tweak each program and each category to give them that kind of selection. We want to give them a variety of offering but we also want them to be able to make adjustments in order to best serve their customer . After all, they’re in the stores, they’re face to face with our customer. They know what they’re asking for and we want to make sure that they can meet those customers’ needs and to keep growing it.
The autonomy that you’re providing feels essential, because as you said, at the store level, those are the people who have a sense of what the customers really want. What does it mean to you to be able to provide them options that kind of supply that autonomy?
To me, it means we’ve given them a little bit of freedom, and they can make a decision, instead of having the head office driving down, telling them what they have to do. It really makes them feel part of the whole floral team, and that they are the floral team. They still have certain standards they have to keep and they can’t get away from those. There are certain details that are driven from the office, and they have to keep that. But it allows them to drive engagement on a whole new level.
For example, I’ll be on calls and mention that I’m looking at something new or that we’re making some changes, and they’ll be very proactive in the feedback. There really is engagement between myself and the stores and at the end of the day, that’s the sort of thing that can create a difference that you can both see and feel in a floral department.
Is that something that happened naturally or what it a conscious effort on your part? How do you maintain and manage the system?
Before I took on the national desk, I was in Ontario managing a little over 200 stores, and in that time, I had developed many of the programs. Because the programs that I had developed here in Ontario had done so well I was able to roll them out to the other regions, so it was an evolution as well as an active effort.
It allows us to bring in that many more products and experiment with something new, because we can select a few stores and get their honest feedback. That way we’ll be able to see how it’s working in order to make adjustments or roll it out in a bigger way. And yes, it took a bit to get all of these pieces lined up, but the feedback that we got was very positive and the sales were positive, which was great because it gave everyone that additional flexibility.
I like to keep an eye on the programs and do a review every quarter, to see if certain items are working or not. And if it’s not working then we make adjustments, but if it is we basically just leave it alone until an update is required.
And I imagine making those updates is a priority, so what does it mean for you to find out and discover those new things?
Being in this industry for so many years has given me the knowledge to know what’s in season and what isn’t. Now the challenge is about extending those products that are no longer in season. How do we add that into the lineup on a seasonal basis? Is it going to work, is it not going to work, or are our customers just focused on buying it at that time?
One of the big focal points for our company is a focus on local before we bring in any external suppliers. That said, anything that we can’t source or do locally, we have partnerships with growers. One product that comes to mind as an example of something new and that we need partner support with is the Ranunculus, which is both beautiful and popular. The problem with this plant is that the local supply for it is extremely limited, due to the short timeframe that we have to grow it up here. So, to increase our supply of the Ranunculus, I’ve met with some farmers in Ecuador that have a much larger window to grow the Ranunculus than we have, and we’re working out the pricing and logistics for getting their product up here to us.
And those are the exact kind of farmers and flowers that define the Floriexpo exhibit floor.
Yes, and it’s why shows like Floriexpo are so important to us, because it really opens up a whole new venue to make these kinds of connections. But I also really appreciate being able to witness all the creativity you can see at the event.
For example, color is what sells in our store, so when I go to the show, I look at color combinations in different bouquets. That gives me a lot of new ideas for what we can do. Getting ideas and having conversations with people that are a part of this industry provides an incredible benefit.
I love what you said about being able to witness creativity at the event because I think sometimes people can fall into “Oh, I’ve already kind of kind of been there done that”. But I’d imagine that every time you’re there you find something different and it might not be something you expected.
Absolutely, no matter how many times you’ve been previously, you always walk away with something new. That’s why it’s important to go to these shows with an open mind. Because yes, you’re going to see some similarities, but when you give the vendors even just five minutes of your time, you might get to learn something that you never would have otherwise. Sure, they can send you samples in the mail, but it’s only limited samples and you don’t get that real time exchange. It’s the best way to learn about and experience these products.
Go with mindset of, “I’m here to have fun, and I’m going to give the vendors 5 minutes of my time to see how much I can learn from each of them.” Because you might think that you know it all, but you don’t.
You mentioned that this will be your first Floriexpo in a bit because of travel restrictions and everything else that’s been going on over the last couple years, so is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to seeing or being part of or talking to this year?
Honestly, I’m really looking forward to just seeing everyone again, and finding out what’s changed with the industry, especially on the creative end. Being able to have one-on-one conversations with people that we’ve done business with in the past and seeing what they’re up to now will be invaluable.
I’ve got my whole team coming with me and we’re looking forward to bringing some of our wholesalers with us this time around to walk the floor with them. That way we’ll be able to point out to them what we want to be able to supply our stores within Canada and they’ll be able to give me feedback in real-time, and the benefits of that for them, for our stores and to our customers is invaluable.