How Loblaws stays on the cutting edge after 96 years

Loblaw has always excelled at pouncing on consumer trends early. Expect more from the Shoppers merger

 
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Pedestrian walking past a Loblaws store entrance

(Darren Calabrese/CP)

When you think of innovative companies, high-tech startups founded by Ping-Pong-playing millennials spring to mind, not a 96-year-old grocer. But Loblaw Cos. Ltd. shows that companies don’t have to be young to hatch new ideas.

It’s easy to overlook all the innovative concepts the business has developed. Take its President’s Choice brand. Loblaw has been a world leader when it comes to creating an in-house label that is every bit as good, if not better, than the leading national competitors, says David Soberman, national chair in strategic marketing at the Rotman School of Management. Or consider that Loblaw began developing organic foods under the PC umbrella before organic truly became mainstream. What sets the company apart is its ability to pounce on consumer trends early and its willingness to spend big to see its concepts through. Gambling on ambitious ideas is part of its DNA.

Perhaps Loblaw’s boldest move was its foray into clothing in 2006, with Joe Fresh. While some initially questioned the idea of selling apparel in a grocery store, no one doubts the logic today. “The idea of selling apparel in a supermarket isn’t that crazy,” says Soberman, noting that Carrefour in France has been doing it for years. Yet Loblaw is still the only grocery store in Canada with an apparel section, he adds.

Expect the marriage between Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart to create more fertile ground to develop fresh ideas. Loblaw’s takeover of the drugstore chain was barely complete before it unveiled a national patient contact centre last June, which was developed to ensure customers are kept up to date with their prescriptions.

It’s not uncommon for patients to fall behind or stop taking medication, either because they forget or they feel better and no longer see the need to continue. But as Ashesh Desai, senior vice-president of pharmacy operations for Shoppers Drug Mart explains, this has a significant impact on the health-care system. “Not taking the medications as prescribed actually results in people getting more sick,” he says.

The Shoppers patient contact centre, located in Mississauga, Ont., is the first of its kind in Canada. It’s staffed by pharmacists and pharmacy technicians who will make about five million calls a year, answering patient questions and reminding them to refill their prescriptions. The idea was developed after consulting with pharmacists, who found they were spending a great deal of time calling customers to ensure they were on top of their medications.

The effort is all part of a larger goal to rebrand pharmacists as experts­­—not mere pill dispensers—and get more people into Shoppers. Retail stores are where pharmacists have the best ability to meet one-on-one with patients. “We want to be able to talk to and service people, and provide real patient care services,” Desai says.

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